Rwandan journalist jailed for one year on contempt charge

New York, November 29, 2005—The Committee to Protect Journalists today condemned the one-year prison sentence imposed on Jean-Léonard Rugambage, a Rwandan journalist who reported alleged corruption among judges in the semi-traditional “gacaca” courts. Rugambage, a reporter for the twice-monthly newspaper Umuco, also faces charges of participation in the 1994 genocide, but CPJ and others believe he is prosecuted in retaliation for his journalistic work.

Rugambage was arrested on September 7 on a murder charge said to be related to the genocide. The arrest came two weeks after his August 25 article in Umuco accused gacaca court officials in the Gitarama region of mismanagement and witness tampering. Gacaca courts, in which suspects are judged by their peers with no recourse to a defense lawyer, were set up to try tens of thousands of genocide suspects who have been languishing in overcrowded jails since the genocide, which left some 800,000 ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus dead. Human rights activists and independent observers have raised concern that the gacaca courts have given rise to false accusations in some cases.

On November 23, a gacaca court in Gitarama region found Rugambage in contempt after he accused the presiding judge of bias and demanded that the judge step down, according to CPJ sources. The court adjourned Rugambage’s trial for alleged participation in the 1994 murder of a local banker, saying he must first serve his sentence for contempt.

Rugambage claimed that the presiding gacaca judge engineered his arrest on the same accusation in 1996, but a judicial court later acquitted him, according to three sources who attended the court hearing. Rugambage said the gacaca judge refused to consider evidence from the 1996 case or hear testimony from witnesses in his defense, the sources said.

“The charges against Jean-Léonard Rugambage appear to be retaliatory and the proceedings biased,” CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper said. “National gacaca authorities need to look into this disturbing case immediately, release Rugambage, and ensure that any further proceedings are lawful and transparent.”