Athanase Seromba was born in 1963 in the commune of Rutziro, Rwanda. At the time of the events, he was a catholic priest in the parish of Nyange in the Kibuye prefecture.
From April 1994, Athanase Seromba was accused of having planned, organised and supervised several attacks, against Tutsi refugees by the Interahamwe militia, as well as by the Rwandan gendarmerie and the communal police, in the commune of Kiwuma.
In particular, he was reported to have been an active participant in the massacre of around 2’000 civilians who had taken refuge in his church in Nyange,for which Gaspard Kanyarukiga (see “related cases”) was also indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR)
After the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) came to power in July 1994, Athanase Seromba fled to Italy where he worked as a priest, under a false identity in two parishes near Florence. He surrendered to the ICTR (International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda) on 6 February 2002.
Athanase Seromba, who had fled to Italy, surrendered to the ICTR (International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda) on 6 February 2002. On 8 June 2001, Athanase Seromba had been charged by the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) on the following four counts:
– genocide (Art. 2 § 3 (b) ICTR Statute) or alternatively complicity in genocide (Art. 2 § 3 (e) ICTR Statute);
– conspiracy to commit genocide (Art. 2 § 3 (b) ICTR Statute); and
– crimes against humanity: extermination (Art.3 (b) ICTR Statute).
At his first appearance before the First Trial Chamber he pleaded not guilty to all counts, saying he had no powers to stop the killings in his church despite having tried to halt the slaughter.
His trial began on 20 September 2004 before the Third Trial Chamber of the ICTR and on 27 June 2006, in his closing statement, the Prosecutor asked the Trial Chamber to sentence Seromba to life in prison.
On 13 December 2006, the Third Trial Chamber of the ICTR found Seromba guilty of aiding and abetting genocide and extermination as a crime against humanity. He was acquitted of the count of conspiracy to commit genocide. Seromba was then sentenced to a single term of fifteen years imprisonment.
On 22 December 2006, the Prosecutor filed an appeal against this judgement.
On 12 March 2008, the Appeals Chamber overturned the conviction of Athanase Seromba for simply aiding and abetting genocide and extermination as a crime against humanity and substituted it for convictions for direct participation in committing genocide and extermination as a crime against humanity. The Appeals Chamber unanimously therefore quashed the sentence of 15 years imprisonment and sentenced him to life in prison.
Athanase Seromba is to remain in the UN prison quarters in Arusha pending his transfer to the country in which he will serve his sentence.
Following a decision signed on 18 May 2009 by the President of the ICTR, Sir Dennis Byron, Athanase Seromba was transferred to Cotonou, Benin, to serve the rest of his sentence on 27 June 2009.
Rwanda has been historically inhabited by three distinct social groups, known as Hutu, Tutsi and Twa. Between April and July 1994 the country was torn apart by a bloody genocide, during which extremist Hutu people targeted Tutsis and moderate Hutus. The United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) was powerless against those committing the genocide, as the peacekeeping troops were outnumbered.
THE INTERNATIONAL CRIMINAL TRIBUNAL FOR RWANDA (ICTR)
In hopes of facilitating the process of national reconciliation and to promote peace in the country, on 8 November 1994 the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 955, establishing the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), located in Arusha, Tanzania.
The Tribunal’s function is to prosecute perpetrators of crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes committed between 1 January and 31 December 1994 in Rwanda. Since its inception, 92 persons have been indicted in front of the ICTR. Some proceedings are however still ongoing.
The ICTR is primed to close down in 2015.
Regarding what will happen to the functions and activities that will outlive the ICTR, the UN Security Council established the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals (or “the Mechanism”), in Resolution 1966 (2010), to take over the remaining functions of both the ICTR and the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). The Mechanism, which has been functioning since 1 July 2012, has already taken over some of the ongoing functions of the ICTR, including the enforcement of sentences of those convicted and sentenced by the Tribunal, the tracking, arrest and prosecution of fugitives earmarked for trial at the Mechanism, and the care and protection of witnesses.
THE GACACA COURTS
In 1998, discussions began under the direction of the President of the Republic of Rwanda about the possible use of traditional courts to support the ordinary Rwandan judicial system and the ICTR. A commission was created to study this possibility, and its report provided the basis of the Organic Law of 26 January 2001, which created the Gacaca Courts.
These courts were in charge of trying the low and middle-level perpetrators of the genocide, apart from the “planners” who should have been tried before national courts. The Gacaca courts were composed of elected popular assemblies, made up of non-professional judges. The composition and functioning of such courts raised several concerns about the respect of fair trial guarantees.
According to Rwandan authorities, during their functioning, the Gacaca courts tried almost two million people. On 18 June 2012 Rwandan President Paul Kagame announced the official end of Gacaca courts’ activity.