Friday, February 10, 2006

ICTR Acquits Two High-Ranking Rwandan Officials

The Appeals Chamber of the ICTR has unanimously upheld a Trial Chamber's acquittal of Andre Ntagerura and Emmanuel Bagambiki, two high-ranking Rwandan officials, on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity. The charges stemmed from a series of massacres committed in Rwanda's Cyangugu Province in 1994 that killed more than 800,000 people, mainly Tutsis. The Trial Chamber held – unanimously, as well – that the prosecution had "failed to prove beyond reasonable doubt" that Ntagerura, a former transport minister, and Bagambiki, the former governor of Cyangugu Province, actively participated in the massacres. It also held that Bagambiki could not be held responsible for the acts of soldiers who killed Tutsis, because the prosecution had failed to establish the existence of a superior-subordinate relationship between him and the killers.

The ICTR Statute – like those of the ICTY and ICC – permits the prosecution to appeal an acquittal, reflecting the influence of the civil law on its rules of procedure. (Such appeals are obviously forbidden in the U.S. by the Double Jeopardy Clause, although in 1998 the Seventh Circuit affirmed an Illinois appellate decision permitting retrial of a defendant who bribed the judge presiding at his bench trial to acquit him.) The two grounds for appeal are an error on a question of law sufficiently serious to invalidate the decision and an error of fact that has resulted in a miscarriage of justice.

The acquittals, it’s worth noting, are rare events for the ICTR; since the Tribunal began work in 1994, 20 defendants have been convicted and five (including Ntagerura and Bagambiki) have been acquitted. Ntagerura is also the first minister-level Rwandan official ever acquitted by the Tribunal.

The Appeals Chamber’s decision has not been released yet, so I can’t comment on its legal merits. But the fact that the judges – trial and appellate – are taking seriously the prosecution’s burden of proof in cases as notorious as this one is a good sign both for the ICTR and for international criminal law generally. It's difficult to imagine how a fair tribunal could ever have a perfect conviction record; given the factual and legal complexity of international crimes like genocide, not even the most conscientious investigators and prosecutors can avoid ensnaring at least a few defendants who are innocent or whose guilt cannot be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. After all, the Nuremberg Tribunal itself, with its overwhelming evidence of guilt, resulted in three acquittals.

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