Rwandan general feared being a political prisoner

2012-06-20 18:54
Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa (Themba Hadebe, AP)

Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa (Themba Hadebe, AP)

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Johannesburg - An exiled Rwandan general, testifying under oath in South Africa on Wednesday, described fearing he would become a political prisoner in his homeland and fleeing to Johannesburg, where he was shot.

General Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa's testimony brought East Africa's fractious politics to South Africa, where he is a witness in the case against three Rwandans and three Tanzanians accused of trying to kill him in Johannesburg in 2010.

Rwandan authorities have repeatedly denied involvement in the shooting, and hired South African lawyer Gerhard van der Merwe to monitor proceedings.

Since coming to South Africa in 2010, Nyamwasa, a former Rwandan military chief, has accused Rwandan President Paul Kagame of crushing dissent and trampling on democracy after the two worked together to end the 1994 genocide that left more than 500 000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus dead in Rwanda.

Hunt down external foes

Rwandans in exile have accused Kagame of using his agents to hunt down his external foes, and foreign governments have raised similar concerns.

In Rwanda last year, a military court convicted Nyamwasa and three other dissidents in absentia and sentenced them to 20 years' imprisonment for threatening state security and on other charges they deny.

Questions also have been raised about Nyamwasa's conduct when he was close to Kagame.

Nyamwasa and other senior Tutsis are accused of waging an extermination campaign against Hutus in the chaotic aftermath of Rwanda's genocide - charges Nyamwasa denies.

Soon after Nyamwasa began testifying, standing in a grey suit and speaking in a soft, steady voice, prosecutor Shaun Abrahams told the court he wanted Nyamwasa to describe his background.


Van der Merwe, Rwanda's lawyer, interrupted to say that could lead to speculation about government involvement.

"The consequences in doing that could be severe," Van der Merwe said.

Magistrate Stanley Mkhari dismissed the objections, and ordered Van der Merwe to remain only a silent observer for rest of the case because "the government of Rwanda is not a party to the process".

Resuming his testimony, Nyamwasa described being born and raised in a marginalised Rwandan community in Uganda, which borders Rwanda.

Nyamwasa earned a law degree from Uganda's prestigious Makere University.

Rose in army ranks

Nyamwasa said he joined then-Ugandan opposition leader Yoweri Museveni's rebel movement in the 1980s in part in hopes of improving the lives of Rwandans in Uganda and in Rwanda.

When Museveni took power, Nyamwasa rose in Ugandan army ranks and joined the Rwandan Patriotic Front, founded in Uganda in 1987.

Rwandan President Kagame has a similar background in Uganda and in the Rwandan Patriotic Front.

Kagame led the Rwandan Patriotic Front to victory in Rwanda in 1994, ending the genocide.

Nyamwasa served in Kagame's security apparatus, rising to army chief, a post he held from 1998 to 2001, when he left to study global security in Britain. When he returned, he was appointed national security co-ordinator, and later ambassador to India.

Undermining unity and reconciliation

In court on Wednesday, as his wife and other supporters watched from the gallery, Nyamwasa described returning from India for his mother's funeral and to attend a governing party meeting in 2010.

"The purpose of the meeting was to harass me," he said, saying he was accused of defying party discipline for actions that in some cases dated back years.

His defiance included opposing moves against Hutu politicians who had joined the post-genocide government. Nyamwasa said that he saw attacks on those politicians as undermining unity and reconciliation.

He was asked to write a letter of apology, and said he had seen such letters used to discredit others, and even as evidence in court cases that resulted in jail terms.

"I recognised, first of all, that I would be arrested, and that after the arrest, I would not be granted due process of law," he said.

Fled the country

He told party officials he would write the letter and present it to Kagame the next day. He said he never intended to write the letter, and instead "I left the country and fled."

He arrived in South Africa days after the meeting, joining other dissidents.

Observers speculate Kagame saw Nyamwasa as a political rival who was becoming too powerful.

In South Africa, working with other dissidents here and elsewhere, Nyamwasa established the Rwandan National Congress, which they say is dedicated to pursuing peaceful political change in their homeland.

Three Rwandans, among them a prominent businessman, and three Tanzanians accused in the Nyamwasa shooting, face charges including attempted murder and conspiracy to commit murder.

Sensitive trial

They pleaded not guilty, but evidence presented earlier this week included confessions and other incriminating statements three defendants made to police.

The defendants told police they did not know who ordered the attack on the general, but said they were approached by a Rwandan they could not identify.

South African prosecutors have said key witnesses in the politically and diplomatically sensitive trial have sought police protection in South Africa because they fear Rwanda's government.

Previous testimony has hinted that shadowy figures were determined to kill Nyamwasa, trying more than once and offering large amounts of cash to draw in conspirators.

After Nyamwasa survived the shooting, prosecutors said the people pursuing him plotted to kill him in his South African hospital bed. But that case was dropped when a key witness claimed he had been forced to testify against the defendants.

Lives in danger

Last year, British police warned some Rwandan exiles living in Britain that their lives were in danger, and the threat was believed to have emanated from the Rwandan government.

In Sweden earlier this year, a person close to the Swedish government told The Associated Press a Rwandan diplomat had been expelled because he was engaged in "refugee espionage".

Last year, after a Rwandan journalist who was a frequent critic of his government was shot and killed in Uganda, Human Rights Watch urged Uganda's government to protect Rwandan dissidents living in Uganda.

Human rights groups say opposition politicians, journalists and civil rights activists have been harassed inside Rwanda.
Read more on:    faustin kayumba nyamwasa  |  paul kagame  |  sa  |  rwanda  |  east africa

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