Nyamwasa shooting trial starts

2011-06-28 13:18

Witnesses against the six men accused of trying to kill a former Rwandan general are under special protection because they fear the Rwandan government, the prosecutor, said today.

The witnesses’ fears were revealed as the trial against the six opened today.

Their fears focused attention on allegations Rwandan President Paul Kagame’s government was behind a plot to kill Lieutenant-General Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa, once Kagame’s military chief.

The Rwandan government has angrily denied the accusations, and hired a South African lawyer to monitor whether state prosecutors raise them in the trial.

“If the state is moving in that direction, I would obviously, and it is part of my mandate, to try to stop that,” lawyer Gerhard van der Merwe told The Associated Press today. “The government of Rwanda doesn’t have anything to hide. They’re not involved in this.”

Van der Merwe said that raising fears of the Rwandan government is a way of implicating the government.

Prosecutor Shaun Abrahams refused to say whether his case would implicate the Rwandan government, saying only that his evidence would speak for itself as the trial proceeds.

Today, Abrahams failed to persuade Magistrate Stanley Mkhari to order reporters not to publicise the names of witnesses who were in the witness protection program, or to order van der Merwe not to disclose the names to the Rwandan government.

Abrahams said several witnesses wanted to remain under protection because they fear the accused, those associated with the accused, and “the Rwandan government”.

Three Rwandans and three Tanzanians are accused of attempted murder, conspiracy to commit murder and other charges in the shooting of Nyamwasa in June last year.

They each pleaded not guilty today at the start of a trial that required French, Swahili and Kinyarwanda translation, and that drew family members for the accused and the victim.

Since Kagame and Nyamwasa fell out and the former general left for exile in South Africa last year, Nyamwasa has joined other Rwandans living abroad in accusing Kagame of crushing dissent and democracy after helping to end the 1994 genocide during which extremist Hutus killed more than 500 000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus in Rwanda.

Rwandan dissidents accuse Kagame’s government of being behind the attack on Nyamwasa.

The case has strained Rwandan-South African relations, but officials here have refused to say whether they believe Nyamwasa was the target of an official assassination attempt.

Suspicions have fallen on Kagame’s government elsewhere. It emerged in May that British police had warned some Rwandan exiles living in Britain that their lives were in danger, and the threat is believed to have emanated from the Rwandan government.

In Rwanda, human rights groups say opposition politicians, journalists and civil society activists have been subjected to crackdowns.

Earlier this year, in a case Human Rights Watch said was politically motivated, Rwanda’s High Court sentenced an opposition leader to four years in prison and fined three opposition figures convicted of endangering national security, attempting to organise unauthorised protests and inciting ethnic divisions.

In the Nyamwasa case, the key suspect is Pascal Kanyandekwe, a Rwandan businessman and the only suspect to appear today in a suit and tie.

In addition to charges stemming from the shooting, Kanyandekwe is accused of plotting to kill Nyamwasa while the general was hospitalized after the shooting. Kanyandekwe and four men not linked to the shooting are to stand trial in the hospital plot later this month.

Kanyandekwe also is accused of bribery after two police officers said he offered them $1 million (R6.84 million) to let them go when they arrested him in July last year.

Kanyandekwe allegedly left South Africa after the attempt on Nyamwasa and was arrested at Joburg’s OR Tambo Airport upon his return.

The other two Rwandans accused are the general’s driver and another had been a Rwandan soldier, according to prosecutors.

In May, Nyamwasa and three other men who had once been top aides to Kagame were convicted in absentia by a Rwandan military court of disturbing public order, threatening state security, sectarianism and criminal conspiracy.

Rwanda has demanded the four be sent home to be imprisoned, but the countries where they have found refuge – South Africa and the United States – have made no move to hand them over.

While Nyamwasa portrays himself as a champion of democracy and is a victim in the case that opened today in a downtown Joburg court room, he and other senior Tutsis are accused of waging an extermination campaign against Hutus in the chaotic aftermath of Rwanda’s genocide.

A Spanish judge in 2008 charged Nyamwasa and 39 other members of the Rwandan military with the mass killings of civilians after they seized power in Rwanda.

A UN report last year echoed the 2008 Spanish charges, accusing invading Rwandan troops of killing tens of thousands of Hutus in 1996 and 1997.

South African refugee and human rights groups have gone to court to try to have Nyamwasa’s asylum status stripped because of the allegations, which the general denies.

In a lawsuit filed earlier this month, the refugee and rights groups acknowledge it might not be safe for Nyamwasa to return to Rwanda. The groups suggest instead he be tried in South Africa.

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