Spain dismisses Rwanda case, abolishes universal jurisdiction

Published on october 8th, 2015 in EJCM INFO

Spain’s supreme court has dismissed a high profile case against 40 Rwandan military officials indicted on charges of genocide, crimes against humanity and other offenses committed in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo during the 1990s.

But the court ruling, announced on Tuesday, included a proviso that 29 Rwandan officials accused of terrorism could still be prosecuted if the alleged perpetrators were on Spanish territory or ‘brought before the court.’

“The ruling recognized there were enough factual criminal elements to build a formal accusation against the Rwandan Patriotic Front, which has ruled since 1994, but said a trial in absentia was not possible until the accused were brought before the court, “ said Jordi Palou Loverdos, a lawyer for Spanish, Rwandan and Congolese victims in the case, told Digital Journal.

The Spanish decision, obtained by Digital Journal, amounted to a final gutting of Spain’s universal jurisdiction laws, which stipulated that crimes of genocide and torture are so serious that people accused of committing them can be tried anywhere, even in countries where the crimes did not take place.

“It is a very sad day for victims and for justice in general,” said Palou Loverdos, adding the ruling was a ‘weak decision’ that he and his colleagues would consider challenging at Spain’s constitutional court.

Whether Spanish authorities would actively enforce the European Arrest Warrants against any of the 29 RPF commanders who might travel throughout Europe was not entirely clear in the ruling.

“It is a mystery,” Palou Loverdos admitted, saying the decision was vague.

In February 2008, Spanish Judge Fernando Andreu Merelles issued an indictment against 40 commanders loyal to Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who came to power in the ashes of the 1994 genocide which left an estimated 800,000 Tutsis and Hutus dead. Kagame is credited with routing Hutu extremists responsible for targeting Tutsis for extermination.

The Spanish indictment alleged that Kagame’s troops committed genocide and other serious crimes against Hutu civilians during the ethnic slaughter from April to July 1994. It said Kagame’s army continued to kill and torture civilians in the aftermath, before invading neighbouring Congo and slaughtering Hutu refugees there.

The allegations in the indictment are based on detailed testimony from former soldiers and officers of Kagame’s own army, most of whom fled the country following the genocide.

In terms of planning, degree of cruelty inflicted, and methods used to cover up acts – many of the RPF crimes described in the indictment bear striking similarity to evidence uncovered by the clandestine Special Investigations Unit of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. (Confidential documents from the ICTR unit have been accessed by this journalist.)

Spain was ultimately unable to persuade Western and African nations to extradite any of the 40 commanders indicted in 2008. Rwanda has received staunch support from the United States and Britain – and enjoyed immunity from criminal prosecution at the ICTR, whose mandate it was to prosecute genocide and other war crimes that occurred in Rwanda in 1994.

The closest the Spanish court came to extraditing an RPF official occurred in June 2015 when British police – acting on a European Arrest Warrant issued by Madrid — arrested General Emmanuel Karenzi Karake, Kagame’s spy chief, during a visit to London.

The charges against Karake stemmed from his tenure as head of military intelligence after the 1994 genocide. The Spanish court accused him of ordering large scale, organized massacres of Rwandan civilians throughout a number of Rwandan areas.

The indictment alleged that Karake ordered the killing of three Spanish nationals working for the NGO Medicos del Mundo and was ultimately responsible for the murder of Canadian priest Guy Pinard in 1997.

Karake, whose defense lawyer was Cherie Blair, the wife of former UK prime minister Tony Blair, was due to appear at an extradition hearing in October. But in a surprise court appearance in August, a British judge dismissed the case against Karake on a technicality, after the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) argued that it did not have jurisdiction to extradite the general. Spain vehemently disagreed with the ruling, saying the CPS had not acted on its behalf and failed to inform Judge Merelles of its decision and the legal reasoning behind it, according to Palou Loverdos.

Aaron Watkins, who currently works for Matrix – a legal firm Cherie Blair worked for until late 2014 – was one of two lawyers chosen to handle the case for Britain’s Crown Prosecution Service.

Immediately after the case against Karake was dismissed, Watkins told the media that “Spanish authorities accepted the general had not committed an offense that could be prosecuted in both countries.”

Palou Loverdos said Spain had neither accepted nor agreed on the matter, and that Judge Merelles had not been informed of the ruling beforehand. The Spanish had been blindsided, the lawyer for the victims said.

Spain has been the most assertive country to pursue the principle of universal jurisdiction, occasionally causing tyrants to tremble. It launched investigations into China’s crimes in Tibet, Israel’s bombardments in Gaza, and the United States’ use of torture at Guantanamo.

In 1998, its court issued an arrest warrant against ex Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet on charges of genocide, terrorism and torture. Pinochet was placed under house arrest in London but was never extradited to Spain. He died in Chile in 2006.

Yet Spain’s conservative People’s Party – battling the recession and eager to improve economic relations with China – sought to erode the country’s doctrine of universal jurisdiction since 2013.

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