Justice Delayed

By Halina Schiffman-Shilo

Last week, judges from the ICTR Appeals Court in The Hague flew to Arusha to deliver the judgment in the Gatete appeals case.

The gallery was packed. We interns nearly filled the first row, chatting and adjusting our headsets to the right language channel—proceedings are simultaneously translated into French and English—before the proceedings began. Along the back row sat former alleged genocidaires, men who were acquitted at earlier trials and were present at the hearing to support their friend who was still on trial. The lead defense attorney came into the gallery and greeted each man warmly, inquiring after their families. The freed men nodded to the accused in a show of solidarity as he was sitting in the courtroom, awaiting judgment.

In 1993,  Jean-Baptiste Gatete was the mayor of Murambi Commune and a member of the MRND, the party of assassinated Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana. He was accused of organizing and arming the Interahamwe to attack and kill Tutsis. Apprehended in the Republic of Congo in 2002, he was brought to Arusha to await trial, a trial that didn’t begin until 2009.

Last year, Mr. Gatete was found guilty of genocide and of extermination as a crime against humanity. He was sentenced to life in prison. He was then 58 years old.

Mr. Gatete is a seemingly humble man of average height. At the Appeals hearing, he gave a brief and solemn statement, thanking his wife and remembering the many Tutsi who were murdered. I don’t know what I imagined a genocidaire to look like, but to me, he looked like an ordinary elderly man, someone you’d give up your seat for on the subway. After his statement, he sat down and smiled at his wife and friends in the gallery.

Amongst the many counts Mr. Gatete was challenging, the Appeals Chamber granted only one: his right to trial without undue delay.

The Appeals Court found “that the extent of pre-trial delay disproportionately exceeded the time reasonable….and constitute[d] prejudice.” Though the ICTR has rules dictating the rights of detainees, Mr. Gatete was still confined in a small room with few liberties for seven years before trial even began.

Yes, at trial Mr. Gatete was found guilty and his guilt was affirmed by the Appeals Court. But for the seven years he spent in pre-trial detention, he was, or should have been, presumed innocent.

In law school, my first year torts professor once asked if delayed justice can be considered justice at all. The Rwandan genocide happened in 1994. In 2012, 18 years later, the main orchestrators are still being tried. On the one hand, I wonder if the victims or victims’ families feel that justice has been served when it has taken so long prosecute the perpetrators. On the other, if the presumption of innocence is to be taken seriously in international criminal law, and it is important to note that Article 20 of the ICTR statute affirms the presumption of innocence, then how long is too long for an accused to sit in the limbo of pre-trial detention?

Clearly, the Appeals Chamber thought seven years was too long—they reduced Mr. Gatete’s sentence from life imprisonment to 40 years based on this undue delay. While this may not significantly affect Mr. Gatete’s life—he will most likely live out the rest of his days behind bars—it certainly affects future jurisprudence regarding undue delay within the realm of international criminal law. The Appeals Court ruling also puts prosecutors on notice that international criminal judges will not stand for delayed proceedings.

My torts professor never told us his opinion on delayed justice. While I believe that delayed justice is better than no justice, I think we must do better, and that no one should be held for seven years (or indefinitely) before having his day in court.


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One Response

  1. sherry says:

    I would love to do an internship like this How did you get it?

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