Rwandan journalist freed after 11 months in jail

New York, July 31, 2006—The Committee to Protect Journalists welcomes the provisional release of journalist Jean-Léonard Rugambage, who had been jailed for nearly 11 months by a traditional court trying suspects in the 1994 genocide. Rugambage was freed on Friday on the orders of the national committee overseeing traditional or “gacaca” courts following an investigation into procedural abuses in his case, CPJ sources said. But the status of a genocide charge against Rugambage, which could bring the death penalty, was not immediately clear.

Rugambage, a reporter for the twice-monthly independent newspaper Umuco, was arrested on September 7, 2005, on a murder charge said to be related to the genocide—even though a Rwandan court had acquitted the journalist in the 1994 slaying several years earlier. Court observers have reported a lack of substantive evidence in the new murder case, and they note that Rugambage was arrested just after an August 25 article in which he accused gacaca officials in the Gitarama region of mismanagement and witness tampering.

On November 23, a gacaca court in the same region of central Rwanda sentenced Rugambage to one year in prison for contempt of court after the journalist accused the presiding judge of bias and demanded that the judge step down, according to CPJ sources. The court adjourned Rugambage’s trial on the murder charge, saying he must first serve his sentence for contempt.

On June 14, a gacaca appeals court ruled that Rugambage be classified as a “Category One” suspect—meaning he was allegedly involved in planning genocide—despite the fact that no additional evidence was made public, according to CPJ sources. Category One suspects, who are tried by judicial courts rather than gacaca, could face the death penalty if convicted.

On July 26, the gacaca appeals court overturned Rugambage’s contempt sentence, for which he had already served eight months, but kept him in detention as a Category One suspect. The national committee, while ordering the journalist’s immediate release, has not disclosed its complete findings, including the disposition of the charges against Rugambage.

“Rugambage appears to have been a victim of abusive procedures designed to punish him for critical reporting,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “We call on the national gacaca commission to complete its findings on his case as soon as possible and sanction any gacaca officials found guilty of abuses.”

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.