French court dismisses genocide charges against priest; Rwandans not happy

By Sam Lucero

KIGALI, Rwanda — A Rwandan government commission has criticized the dismissal of genocide charges against a Catholic priest who fled to France after the 1994 mass killing of the African country’s Tutsi inhabitants.

“This priest, (Father) Wenceslas Munyeshyaka, bears responsibility for having planned, instigated, committed and otherwise aided and abetted others in planning, preparing and executing the genocide,” the National Commission for the Fight Against Genocide said in an Oct. 7 statement.

Volunteers are seen in 2005 burying the remains of victims of the 1994 genocide in Murambi, Rwanda. A Rwandan government commission has criticized the dismissal of genocide charges against a Catholic priest who fled to France after the 1994 mass killing of the African country’s Tutsi inhabitants. (CNS photo | Ricky Gare, EPA)

“This decision lays bare a French court which claims to be independent, but merely serves as protector of a political and military class whose role led to the genocide,” it said.

The statement was issued after the Oct. 2 dismissal by France’s Correctional Court of the case against Father Munyeshyaka, now ministering at a Catholic parish near Gisors.

It said the ruling amounted to “a genuine judicial comedy tinted with denials” and suggested other genocide participants now “comfortably settled on French soil” would also be granted future impunity.

The Paris-based International Federation of Human Rights said it was disappointed in the ruling and would lodge an appeal.

“Wenceslas Munyeshyaka was charged with genocide, crimes against humanity and acts of torture and barbaric acts,” said the federation, which groups 178 human rights organizations throughout the world. “This is the oldest case concerning the genocide before the French courts — that 20 years of proceedings have ended in a dismissal is something the victims and our organizations fail to understand.”

Father Munyeshyaka was rector of Holy Family Parish in the Rwandan capital, Kigali, when 800,000 people, mostly from the Tutsi minority, were massacred between April and July 1994.

The priest was indicted in 1995 by the Tanzanian-based International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, and sentenced to life imprisonment in absentia in 2006 by a Rwandan military court, which declared him guilty of handing over Tutsi civilians sheltering in his church compound to Hutu militias.

In 2007, French justice officials agreed to take over his case, and Father Munyeshyaka was arrested in France’s Ardeche region.

However, in an Aug. 26 statement, the Paris prosecutor, Francois Molins, said investigators had been “unable to corroborate specific acts” attributed to Father Munyeshyaka, even though his role during the genocide had “raised a lot of questions.”

The priest’s defense lawyer, Jean-Yves Dupeux, told France’s Catholic La Croix daily Oct. 7 that Father Munyeshyaka had “done all he could” to protect 18,000 people at his parish and to “manage their feeding, protection and evacuation.”

The Rwandan genocide commission said the dismissal of charges against the priest was “nonsense,” adding that France was obliged to cooperate in the prosecution of genocide suspects under a 1994 U.N. Security Council resolution.

“We encourage plaintiffs to appeal against the investigating judge’s dismissal order and condemn this aberrant decision which brings shame to law and justice,” it said.

Dozens of Catholic clergy, including Archbishop Vincent Nsengiyumva of Kigali, were murdered during the Rwandan genocide and communal violence that followed.

Numerous priests, monks and nuns also were convicted of involvement, including Father Athanase Seromba, who was given a life sentence in 2009 after ministering under an assumed name at a Catholic parish near Florence, Italy. He was convicted for involvement in the killing of 2,000 Tutsis at his parish in western Rwanda.

A British former rector of Rwanda’s Institute of Legal Practice and Development, Nick Johnson, told Catholic News Service: “The Catholic Church intertwined itself around Rwanda’s previous Hutu regime, and many individual clergy, up to senior level, were indeed involved in the genocide.

“Although there’s no firm evidence the Catholic Church helped them escape justice, the Rwandan authorities are still very actively trying to track down other Catholic suspects,” he said.

In June 1994, France was condemned by the European Court of Human Rights for “unreasonable delays” in prosecuting genocide suspects living on its territory.