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Rwanda1 August 2006

Rugambage finally freed after being held for 11 months by popular tribunal

Jean-Léonard Rugambage of the Kigali-based independent fortnightly Umuco was freed on 28 July after a ‘gacaca’ popular tribunal finally recognised on appeal that the warrant for his arrest issued on 7 September 2005 was fraudulent and that his detention was therefore arbitrary, Rugambage told Reporters Without Borders today.

His release came two days after the gacaca appeal court overturned his conviction on a charge of a contempt of court, for which he had already served eight months of a one-year prison sentence. In all, Rugambage spent 11 months in detention.

Speaking in Kigali, Rugambage said: “I am grateful to all the organisations, including Reporters Without Borders, that campaigned for the truth to finally emerge, and to the national agency of gacaca courts that enabled my case to advance.”

He also hailed “the efforts of the government, as part of national reconciliation, to make the population more aware of the role of the gacaca courts, which are often seen as means for settling scores.”

Reporters Without Borders said it hailed the end of the political and legal harassment of Rugambage, in which he was kept in prison by the use of legal procedures that the Rwandan judicial authorities themselves now recognise as arbitrary.

Still pending against him is a charge of murder, described as genocide. After two hearings on 7 and 14 June, the gacaca said it was not qualified to hear this charge. Although he could still in theory be tried by an ordinary court, the executive secretary of the gacaca courts, Domitille Mukantaganzwa, told him his case would be closed. Now that he has been released, further proceedings seem very unlikely.

Rugambage plans to resume working soon as Umuco’s editor.

27.07.2006 - Journalist kept in prison after conviction overturned on appeal

Reporters Without Borders today condemned the failure to release newspaper reporter Jean Léonard Rugambage after the judges of a “gacaca” people’s court in Mbati, in the district of Ruyumba, yesterday overturned his conviction on a charge of a “contempt of court”, for which he had already served eight months of a one-year prison sentence.

“We call for an end to this travesty of justice being carried on behalf of unclear personal interests and we demand that Rugambage should be released once and for all,” the press freedom organisation said.

A reporter with the independent fortnightly Umuco, Rugambage still faces a charge of “planning genocide” in 1994 when he was an army corporal. He withdrew an appeal against this accusation when two of his defence witnesses were beaten and a third was arrested during a hearing on 7 June.

The irregularities surrounding the manner in which he was placed in pretrial detention on 7 September 2005 are supposedly going to be examined in a later closed hearing.

In yesterday’s appeal hearing, judge Théophile Bonabagenda referred to the original warrant for Rugambage’s arrest which he and two other people were forced to sign by two policemen and a military officer, without consulting the gacaca district coordinator. Bonabagenda also insisted that one of the signatures was forged.

In an additional irregularity, Rugambage was held for six days at a police station in the central province of Gitamara after his arrest, although he should have been transferred immediately to the central prison.

1.12.2005 - Travesty of justice from popular court for detained journalist

Reporters Without Borders voiced alarm today at all the judicial iniquities undergone by reporter Jean Léonard Rugambage of the independent fortnightly Umuco since his arrest on 7 September, the latest of which is the one-year prison sentence for contempt he received on 23 November after contesting the impartiality of the gacaca (popular court) appointed to try him.

As a result, his trial on a charge of alleged participation in a murder during the 1994 genocide has been postponed until next year when he has completed the sentence for contempt of court.

“Everything in this story is marked by bad faith, denial of justice and victimisation,” the press freedom organisation said. “The murder charge seems to have been trumped up because his newspaper criticised irregularities and aberrant behaviour by some of the gacacas.”

Reporters Without Borders added: “After examining the facts, we can only conclude that his arrest, charging and imprisonment were all the result of a machination which we firmly condemn, and we are horrified to see the gacacas being used to settle personal scores, impose authority and silence news media.”

The sentence for contempt was imposed at a public hearing by a gacaca in Mbati, in the municipality of Ruyumba (in the central prefecture of Gitarama), on 23 November. It was Rugambage’s second appearance before this gacaca. According to a report published by the Swiss news agency Hirondelle, the hearing began with Rugambage immediately introducing a motion denouncing the “partiality” of the president judge, Theophile Kalisa.

Rugambage argued that by systematically refusing to hear defence witnesses, Kalisa had demonstrated a lack of neutrality. Kalisa immediately responded that Rugambage had “shown disrespect to a man of integrity.” In the Kinyarwanda language, the gacaca judges are called “inyangamugayo,” which means “men of integrity.”

The court’s seven judges then withdrew to deliberate in private about the incident. On their return, Rugambage was given a lecture and then got the one-year sentence for contempt. His trial on a charge of alleged participation in the genocide was deferred until his completion of this sentence.

When Rugambage asked if the two and a half months he had already spent in detention would be deducted from the one-year sentence, the judge replied, “We are not aware of your arrest.” Rugambage, who was wearing a prisoner’s pink uniform, protested to the judge and pointed that he had been arrested “on the basis of a charge drawn up by this court.”

The judge put an end to any further discussion by claiming that this was a police matter and nothing to do with him. Yet Rugambage was told by the Gitarama police who arrested him on 7 September that they were acting on an order issued by the Ruyumba gacaca.

Rugambage was arrested 10 days after the publication of an Umuco issue containing an article he wrote about corruption among certain gacaca judges in Ruyumba and the use of the gacacas to settle personal scores.

A Reporters Without Borders representative was present when he appeared for the first time before the gacaca on 5 October and witnesses accused him of such crimes as distributing arms and forging passports. One witness accused him of killing a bank manager during the genocide after looting the bank, although the victim’s father said he had never seen Rugambage.

Rugambage arranged to be accompanied to the 23 November hearing by two fellow inmates who had confessed to killing the bank manager. He said the bank manager, who was of Hutu origin, was killed for money, not for any reason to do with the genocide.

Rugambage was anyway already tried and acquitted by an ordinary court in 1996 for the bank manager’s murder. Kalisa was already one of his accusers back then, he said.

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