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What is the value of an acquittal in international criminal justice?

The case of former Rwandan Foreign Affairs Minister Jérôme Bicamumpaka

AfricaHuman Rights

Former Rwandan Foreign Affairs Minister Jérôme Bicamumpaka (second from left) with his family. Photo supplied.

A serious injustice is occurring under our noses. Canada is part of it and has the key to a rapid solution. It is the case of former Rwandan Foreign Affairs Minister Jérôme Bicamumpaka, who was acquitted of all charges by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) in 2011.

His spouse, Jeannine Hakiziman and his children (now adults), have lived in Montréal for more than 20 years. Canada refuses to allow him to reunite with his family.

Canada supported the creation of the ICTR from the beginning in 1995. Well-known Canadians have played important roles, including Louise Arbour, Chief Prosecutor from 1996 to 1999. Many Canadian lawyers, mainly from Québec because of their familiarity with civil and common law, have taken part both for the prosecution and as defense counsel.

Jérôme Bicamumpaka was arrested in Cameroon in 1999 upon the instructions of Chief Prosecutor Louise Arbour, who accused him of crimes including genocide. He was transferred to Arusha, Tanzania, and spent twelve years in preventive detention awaiting trial. When he finally had his day in court, the ICTR acquitted him, recognizing that he was not even in Rwanda when the acts for which he was accused were committed. The evidence left no room for doubt. In fact, Mr. Bicamumpaka was in New York with the mission of pleading for a ceasefire at the United Nations. In short, he was wrongly accused.

A person acquitted by Canadian courts is innocent, free, and does not run the risk of double jeopardy under the principle of non bis in idem. It appears that this is not the case for an African from Rwanda. Ten years after being acquitted, Mr. Bicamumpaka is still in Arusha, under a form of house arrest, without identity or travel documents, living in constant fear of being extradited to Rwanda or to another country.

Since 2011, his wife and children have requested that Canada apply its policy of reuniting families. But in vain.

The ICTR (now known as the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals) was created by the United Nations Security Council, which is still in charge of it. When the tribunal was created, it was supposed to be guided by the highest legal principles and standards. It would not be “victor’s justice,” said Arbour when she was appointed chief prosecutor.

Canada believed strongly in the international criminal justice initiative, as did the United States, Belgium, the United Kingdom and others. At least officially they did. Yet Canada clearly does not respect the decisions rendered by the tribunal.

Does this mean that Canada’s support for the ICTR was conditional on nobody being acquitted (fourteen people were acquitted)? Were the trials simply for show and the results were known in advance?

If so, then we are not dealing with justice, but rather with very cruel kangaroo courts.

When the ICTR was created, some compared it to Nuremberg. The comparison, though largely unfounded, reminds us nonetheless that the famous post-war tribunal acquitted men, who walked away from the court and were allowed to come and go as they pleased.

Mr. Bicamumpaka’s case is now in the hands of Canada’s Public Safety Minister, Marco Mendicino.

The time has come for Canada to welcome Jérôme Bicamumpaka, to allow him to join his family, and to finally right a very terrible wrong.

Robin Philpot is the publisher of Baraka Books, a Québec-based English-language book publisher specialized in creative and political non-fiction, history and historical fiction, and fiction.


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