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Rwandan genocide mayor’s verdict upheld

Niyonteze's defence team, Assaël (left) and Spira, expressed disappointment at the verdict Keystone

Switzerland's highest military court has upheld a 14-year sentence against a former Rwandan mayor, Fulgence Niyonteze, for his part in the 1994 genocide. He remains the only person to be convicted of war crimes in Switzerland.

The Military Court of Cassation, sitting in the town of Yverdon, said the verdict passed by a lower appeals court in Geneva in May 2000 was “definitive”.

It rejected virtually all the complaints filed by the defence team and all those submitted by the military prosecutor.

The verdict was greeted calmly by the dozen or so Rwandans in court.

Niyonteze, who chose not to attend the verdict, has no right to a further appeal. But his lawyers, Vincent Spira and Robert Assaël, said they intended to pursue the case as far as they could.

“We are shocked and extremely disappointed,” Assaël told swissinfo. “We are determined to explore every legal avenue possible.”

“We will study the written findings of this verdict, before deciding whether we can take the case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, or whether we have the means to overturn this verdict,” Spira added. The only way the case can now be revived is if fresh evidence comes to light.

The military prosecutor, Lt-Col. Claude Nicati, was not in court for the verdict. His plea for the sentenced to be increased to 20 years was rejected.

Niyonteze’s was a landmark case. He was the first Rwandan war crimes suspect to stand trial outside Rwanda or the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in the Tanzanian town of Arusha.

In April 1999, he was sentenced to life imprisonment for murder, incitement to murder and war crimes. But that sentence was reduced on appeal in May 2000 to 14 years after the judges decided they were only competent to consider the charge of violating the Geneva Conventions.

The case against him is based on two events: firstly, Niyonteze addressed a meeting on Mount Mushubati to urge his fellow Hutus to kill those Tutsis who had survived the initial wave of killings, unleashed in April 1994.

Secondly, he visited a refugee camp to encourage Tutsis and moderate Hutus to return home in the knowledge that they would be killed. Some eyewitnesses say two of these returning refugees were murdered in his presence and on his orders.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of presiding judge Col Gilbert Kolly’s summing-up was the confirmation that violations of the Geneva Conventions by foreigners during a foreign conflict can be tried under the Swiss military penal code.

Niyonteze was convicted on the strength of eyewitness testimony, which his lawyers argued was unreliable and often contradictory. Kolly said any inaccuracies and confusion over dates was understandable given the upheavals in Rwanda at the time.

by Roy Probert

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR