|Rwandans are still grief-stricken by the killing of 800,000 Tutsi 15 years ago [EPA]
Finland is holding the first genocide trial in its history. Francois Bazaramba, a former Rwandan pastor who sought asylum in Finland in 2003, is accused of killing 5,000 people in the central African nation’s genocide in 1994.
His lawyers tried to get the case thrown out after alleging that Rwandan police used torture to obtained testimony from witnesses, but Bazaramba faces life imprisonment if convicted. Human rights groups are closely following the case.
Al Jazeera’s Alan Fisher reports on the trial’s first day of proceedings.
He sat in court, unconcerned by the camera flashes around him. Smartly dressed, greying and distinguished, he betrayed no emotion and no fear that he was facing charges of genocide and life in prison if convicted.
Francois Bazaramba, 58, was a pastor in the Nyakizu region of Rwanda. Prosecutors claim that as he was an active member of an extremist Hutu movement and a national leader in the Baptist Church’s youth group.
They say that during April and May 1994 he committed the crime of genocide “with intent to destroy the Rwandan Tutsis partly or totally”.
The court papers say Bazaramba was “one of the most important leaders in mass destruction (genocide) in the Nyakizu municipality”.
Eight hundred thousand people died in a few, short, bloody months in Rwanda in 1994.
The majority Hutus began the slaughter of the rival Tutsis and anyone who supported or helped them, including moderate Hutus.
Fair trial fears
The trial is being held in Finland because the authorities are not convinced the accused would have received a fair trial in Rwanda; they have rejected appeals to send him back.
Instead, under a new law passed in Finland, the authorities can take action against anyone who is living or was arrested here. Bazaramba came to Finland in 2003.
The proceedings are being watched closely by the human rights group Amnesty International.
During a break in the proceedings, Susana Mehtonen, a legal officer at Amnesty International, explains: “Amnesty is following this case because it’s the first time Finland is applying universal jurisdiction in an international crime.
“It’s an example other states will apply in their jurisdictions so there will be no safe haven for perpetrators of these international crimes.”
Within minutes of the trial opening – it came to a sudden halt.
The defence quoted a piece in one of Finland’s newspapers, where one of the judges in the case said there was no reason the proceedings should not have been allowed to go ahead in Africa.
Defence lawyer Ville Hoikkala told me he was worried this demonstrated a bias on the judge’s part.
“Under Finnish law the judge cannot make statements like this. Reluctantly, we have had to ask if he should play a part in the trial,” says Hoikkala.
|Francois Bazaramba, a former pastor, denies charges of genocide and 15 counts of murder|
This case is not being heard in front of a jury, but a panel of four judges. The man at the heart of the row, Lars Karlsson, is the senior judge, the chairman.
He was asked to leave while the remaining three members discussed if he should be dropped.
As he paced outside the courtroom he told reporters he would accept whatever his colleagues decided.
I asked him directly if he should stand down. He dismissed the idea with a brusque “no comment”.
After almost an hour of deliberation, the remaining three judges ruled the pre-trial comments did not show bias and Judge Karlsson was invited to take his place back on the bench.
Most of the first day has been taken up with the prosecution going into detail on each of the charges against the pastor.
The word “Murha”, Finnish for murder, appears a lot. As things were drawing to a close – there was a bad-tempered exchange between prosecution and defence teams.
“There was some very bad commentary about the work of the defence team and I think it was a propaganda thing. They’ve tried to discredit the defence and tonight we will work and look again at our strategy. I’m still confident my client will be found innocent,” says Hoikkala.
The lead prosecutor, Raija Toiviainen, told me that it was going to be a long, hard case, but she wouldn’t have brought it if the evidence didn’t point in one direction.
“He looks fine and he looks confident and positive about the whole thing, and so are we”
Wellars Nsanzimani, Bazaramba’s son
“It’s very important to say to the court what genocide is, the context of genocide, to understand the detailed acts of genocide.”
She says the evidence will be built up layer by layer: “The most important thing here is finding out the truth.”
Sitting quietly at the back of the court, trying to follow the proceedings, is Francois Bazaramba’s son.
Wellars Nsanzimani says he was shocked when his father was indicted and has been to see him often in prison over the past two-and-a-half years it has taken for the case to come to court.
Tall and smartly dressed like his father, he maintains his father is not capable of doing the things his accusers say: “He looks fine and he looks confident and positive about the whole thing and so are we also.”
On Wednesday the court will hear the details of the defence case. At some point, probably later this month, the court will move to Kigali to hear evidence from eye witnesses in Rwanda.
Their testimony is crucial in establishing if Pastor Francois Bazambara is innocent or guilty.