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Rwandan given reduced sentence

In a surprise verdict, a military appeals court in Geneva has reduced to 14 years the sentence against a former Rwandan mayor for his part in the 1994 genocide in the central African country.

Fulgence Niyonteze was sentenced a year ago to life for murder, incitement to murder and war crimes. But the five military judges decided that they could only consider the charge of violating the Geneva Conventions.

The defence team expressed its satisfaction with the verdict, but pledged to fight on to clear their client’s name.

“You can’t talk about winning or losing in the context of the Rwandan conflict,” defence lawyer, Vincent Spira told swissinfo.

“We’re happy, of course, that our client has been acquitted of murder, and that the sentence has been reduced. But we repeat: this man is innocent, and we’ll continue to fight for his acquittal,” Spira said.

Niyonteze’s lawyers have five days to submit their appeal to the military Court of Cassation – the highest military court of appeal. They say they may also take the case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

The presiding judge, Colonel Luc Hafner, said the court believed the main accusations against Niyonteze to be true – that he called a meeting on Mount Mushubati to urge his fellow Hutus to kill Tutsis, and that he visited the Kabgayi refugee camp to encourage Tutsis to return home in the knowledge that they would be killed.

“As a mayor, he enjoyed a certain amount of power,” Colonel Hafner told the court. “Mr Niyonteze maintained the attitude of someone who backed the government in power, which doesn’t mean he supported the genocide. He could be categorised as weak or an opportunist, but one who committed very serious, punishable acts.”

In launching their appeal the defence lawyers criticised the fact that their client was convicted almost entirely on the strength of eyewitness testimony, which was often contradictory, and that there was an “inexplicable lack of exhibits.”

“We spent over four hours highlighting the contradictions in the testimonies. And notwithstanding the cultural differences and the inaccuracies, this evidence is not credible enough to reach a guilty verdict,” Vincent Spira said.

“There were 12 hours of deliberations – which seemed a lot in court, but for us, it’s a joke, – it’s impossible to look at all the facts. You can only generalise,” he said.

The military prosecutor, Claude Nicati, who had pleaded for the life sentence to be maintained, sought to find some comfort from the verdict.

“I’m proud of Switzerland, because we’ve shown that the Geneva Conventions have a place in this country, that we will use them to bring to justice those who have committed atrocities in Rwanda or elsewhere,” he told swissinfo.

The Niyonteze case was seen as a landmark. It was the first trial of a Rwandan genocide suspect outside Rwanda or the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in Arusha, Tanzania.

There was some drama at the start of Friday’s proceedings when Colonel Hafner allowed press photographers and cameramen into the courtroom to take pictures of the accused. His lawyers lodged a formal complaint, saying it breached the rules on the protection of the individual and would upset and even endanger Niyonteze’s wife and children.

by Roy Probert

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR