Zimbabwe under renewed pressure to give up Rwanda genocide suspect

United Nations investigators tracking one of the most notorious killers in the Rwandan genocide believe he is hiding in Zimbabwe and are launching a new effort to convince authorities in Harare to allow the 60-year-old fugitive to face trial.

Protais Mpiranya, the former commander of the presidential guard of the Rwandan army, has been on the run for 27 years charged with war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity.

The ex-soldier is top of a list of remaining fugitives indicted by an international tribunal into the 1994 killings, which left 800,000 people dead in Rwanda, mostly from the Tutsi ethnic minority but also some Hutus.

Mpiranya had been second on the wanted list before the arrest of Félicien Kabuga, a former businessman alleged to have helped finance the genocide, on the outskirts of Paris in May. The US war crimes reward programme has offered a $5m (£3.6m) reward for information leading to Mpiranya’s arrest.

Serge Brammertz, the prosecutor of the body charged with tracking down the fugitive alleged criminals, which is known as the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals (IRMCT), said he was hoping to capitalise on the detention of Kabuga to corner Mpiranya.

Kabuga now faces charges of playing a key role in the genocide, and if convicted he is likely to spend the rest of his life in prison.

“We hope that the arrest of Kabuga would generate momentum and we are hoping to use this to get Mpiranya,” Brammertz said.

Investigators have long suspected Mpiranya of hiding in Zimbabwe and have made repeated attempts to convince local authorities to hand over the suspect.

Officials from the IRMCT travelled to Zimbabwe months after President Robert Mugabe was forced from power in November 2017 in the hope that the new government would prove more helpful than the former regime. There has been no progress, however, and a new request for assistance is to be made this month.

Brammertz said hopes had been boosted by an agreement on legal cooperation on criminal matters signed last month by Zimbabwe and Rwanda.

“Because of his military background it is very possible that [Mpiranya] still enjoys protection from senior military officers,” Brammertz told the Guardian. “We think he … is still quite active, still doing business and until recently has been moving around in east and central Africa, possibly between Zimbabwe, the DRC and South Africa.”

Relations between governments of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda have improved recently, and this could limit options for the fugitive if Zimbabwe becomes unsafe. DRC may now offer a less secure haven for the fugitive, investigators said.

“As commander of the presidential guard we consider [Mpiranya] as being one of the main perpetrators of the genocide,” Brammertz said.

The genocide began after Rwanda’s Hutu president, Juvénal Habyarimana, was killed when his plane was shot down over Kigali on 6 April 1994.

On Wednesday France marked the 27th anniversary of the start of the slaughter by declassifying and making accessible to the public all documents mentioned in a report released in March that documented the country’s role in the events of 1994. The report concluded that France had been blinded by its colonial attitude towards Africa in the runup to the slaughter and must bear the burden of “heavy and damning responsibilities”, but cleared it of complicity in the genocide.

According to the indictment filed by the international tribunal, Mpiranya was among those who ordered the murder on 7 April 1994 of the prime minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana, 10 Belgian soldiers protecting her, and several other leading politicians and their families.

The killing of Uwilingiyimana, a moderate Hutu and Rwanda’s first female prime minister, was an essential step to extremists taking power and instigating the mass killing of Tutsis.

When the military victory of rebel forces led by present-day Rwandan president, Robert Kagame, ended the genocide, Mpiranya fled to neighbouring DRC, where he is thought to have fought alongside Congolese forces against Rwandan troops in the bloody war that broke out across the vast central African state.

Investigators believe Mpiranya was later sent to Zimbabwe as a representative of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a militia partly composed of former Hutus implicated in the genocide, and accused of exploiting the mineral wealth of eastern DRC.

Mpiranya is believed to have become close to senior officers in the powerful Zimbabwean military when Mugabe deployed his army to DRC, setting up joint venture companies that allowed hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of precious natural resources including diamonds to be mined in DRC and then sold to the benefit of senior soldiers.

The fugitive soldier is also thought to have been involved in lucrative arms procurement and trafficking involving the rebels and Zimbabwean forces.

As early as December 2010, UN investigators reported to the UN security council that Mpiranya had connections with Zimbabwe and lived there for long periods.

In 2012, under pressure from Kigali, Zimbabwean authorities admitted that the fugitive could be on their territory and pledged to find him “dead or alive”. His alleged presence in Zimbabwe was discussed in parliament, and local media listed possible aliases and addresses associated with him.

However, last year Brammertz informed the UN security council that despite “credible evidence” of the whereabouts of key fugitives, the lack of cooperation from governments remained a challenge, particularly in east and southern Africa.

One problem faced by investigators is that fugitives often use genuine travel documents issued in false names. A team from the tribunal has worked to establish the motives of those who provided the more than 20 different passports used by Kabuga during his years on the run. These may have been obtained through bribery or given on the orders of powerful individuals who wanted the accused man to stay hidden and silent.

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