Bishop Misago of Rwandagoes on Trial for
allegedly participating in genocide
In an unusual turn of events, a Roman Catholic Bishop in ethnic-hatred torn Rwanda started facing charges of genocide in a trial which began on Tuesday September 14, 1999 in Kigali. he is allegedl to have participated in the 1994 attempt to exterminate of Rwandan Tutsis. More than half a million Tutsis died in the systematic slaughter led by an extremist Hutu government between April and July 1994, many of them hacked to death by Hutus with machetes or clubs in churches where they sought refuge.
Augustin Misago, the first ever bishop charged with genocide, told the three-judge panel that he is innocent of allegations that he helped plot the 100-day slaughter and sent three priests to their deaths. In an opening statement, Misago, wearing a prison-issued pink long-sleeved shirt and shorts, likened himself to Jesus, who he said was also unjustly accused. The bishop has insisted he is a scapegoat for the church's alleged failure to stop the slaughter.
Misago, a Hutu, was in the capital, Kigali, when a plane carrying Rwanda's Hutu president was shot down on April 6, 1994, triggering a killing frenzy that had been planned months in advance. Aided by the army, Hutu militias took guns, grenades, studded clubs and machetes to Tutsis. They rallied ordinary Hutus, in some cases with threats of death, to join them in the slaughter.
When Misago returned to his diocese in the southwestern Gigonkoro province a week later, the bloodbath was in full swing. His attorney, Alfred Pognon, said the trial is "political" and has nothing to do with Misago's actions during the genocide. "I cannot accept a person to be condemned when it is the institution the person belongs to that is being blamed," Pognon said in an interview on the eve of the trial.
The 56-year-old Rwandan bishop is the most prominent of the more than 20 nuns and priests accused of participating in the genocide. If convicted, he faces a mandatory death sentence.
Misago's arrest on April 14 reflected the deep-seated frustration of the government formed after Tutsi rebels seized power in July 1994, ending the bloodbath. For five years it has waited in vain for an apology for what it perceives as the church's complicity in the killings.
Pognon said prosecutors only began gathering evidence after the bishop's arrest, an allegation prosecutors deny. The government is expected to call priests and nuns to testify against Misago.
"They have no evidence," he said. "Most of the witnesses ... are lying. They are telling (tales of) resentment, but not the truth." Misago was in the capital of Kigali when a plane carrying Rwanda's Hutu president was shot down on April 6, 1994, triggering a killing frenzy that had been planned months in advance. Aided by the army, Hutu militias took guns, grenades, studded clubs and machetes to Tutsis. They rallied ordinary Hutus, in some cases on threat of death, to join them in the slaughter. When he returned to his diocese in the southwestern Gigonkoro province a week later, the bloodbath was in full swing. From there, the stories of Misago and his accusers differ.
Thousands of Tutsis sought shelter in his parish, but he turned them away, claiming in a recent interview that he had no space. According to Pignon, the bishop believed at first that authorities would stop the killing and personally urged them to protect his parish. It wasn't until the killing was well under way that Misago says he realised the same authorities were in fact overseeing it.
Misago also is charged with involvement in the deaths of three priests, who were hiding in his parish and later seized by Hutu soldiers and killed. But Pognon said that Misago had tried to protect them, first buying off the soldiers with $1600, then negotiating. But he was forced to surrender them when the soldiers presented him with an arrest warrant saying the priests were wanted on criminal charges.
"He had no means to protect them," Pognon said. "What could a bishop do? He could do nothing." The London-based Africa Rights said Misago spoke on May 4, 1994, to 90 children hiding in a school in the town of Kibeho, three days before 82 of them were killed. Pognon said the bishop arranged to have them protected by soldiers he believed were trustworthy. "This is Kafka, the process is absurd," said Pognon. "I don't think Rwanda needs to have a justice based on the absurd."
The bishop's trial is a major signal that the fight and battle against human rights abuse and allegations of abuse can reach to the highest levels of the civil society. The roles of armed militias and soldiers are yet to be fully chronicled.
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