A UN appeal court has overturned genocide convictions of two Rwandan ex-ministers who were jailed for 30 years in 2011, and ordered their immediate release.
Appeal Judge Theodor Meron overturned the convictions on Monday for complicity to commit genocide and incitement to commit genocide against Justin Mugenzi, who was trade minister during the 1994 genocide, and Prosper Mugiraneza, former minister in charge of civil servants.
"The convictions were reversed because the ICTR Appeals Chamber believes strongly that there were errors in the trial
chamber's assessment of the evidence," Roland Amoussouga, International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda spokesperson, told Reuters news agency by telephone from its base in the Tanzanian city of Arusha.
"The appeals chamber has acquitted the accused persons and ordered their immediate release."
The lower court had convicted the two on the grounds that they attended a council of ministers meeting that decided the then prefect of Butare, a region in southern Rwanda, was to be dismissed on the grounds that he was preventing the massacres from starting in his region.
The prefect, Jean-Baptiste Habyarimana, was killed after his dismissal and the massacres promptly started in Butare.
Guilty of complicity
The lower court judges had ruled that the presence of Mugenzi and Mugiraneza at that meeting, and at another meeting two days later where interim President Theodore Sindikubwabo urged the population to kill Tutsis, meant that they were guilty of complicity to commit genocide and incitement to commit genocide.
The appeal judges, however, found that Mugenzi and Mugiraneza did not know that Sindikubwabo was going to make such a speech, and that the dismissal of the prefect could have been decided "for political and administrative reasons" and not necessarily in order to speed up the massacres.
The umbrella of Rwanda Genocide survivors’ associations (IBUKA), however, strongly condemned the acquittal of two genocide suspects who had previously been convicted of genocide crimes and sentenced to 30 years in jail.
In a statement reacting to the release, the president of IBUKA, Professor Jean Pierre Dusingizemungu said: "This acquittal is another nail in the coffin of the victims of the genocide, and a smack in the face for survivors of the genocide too."
During the genocide, about 800,000 of the minority Tutsi ethnic group and moderate Hutus were systematically killed.