Joseph Kanyabashi

31.05.2016 ( Last modified: 22.07.2016 )
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Joseph Kanyabashi was born in Mpare, in the prefecture of Butare, Rwanda, in 1937. He was mayor of the commune of Ngoma, in Butare, from April 1974 until the day he left Rwanda, which was on or around 4 July 1994. In his capacity as mayor, he was the highest representative of the executive power at a communal level. He exercised authority over all his subordinates and could requisition the local police units.

From the end of 1990 to July 1994, Kanyabashi was said to have participated in the elaboration of a plan to eliminate Tutsis.

On different occasions between April and June 1994, Kanyabashi was said to have encouraged the population to eliminate all Tutsis in the province of Butare. On 19 April 1994, he reportedly made a speech in Butare, in which he appealed to the audience to rise up against the Tutsis. Shortly thereafter, indiscriminate large-scale attacks against Tutsis occurred in the region. Towards the end of May 1994, Kanyabashi allegedly drove through the city of Butare in a car, calling upon the civilian population to track down the Tutsis. Around the same time, he allegedly organized two gatherings in Cyarwa, in the community of Ngoma, during which he encouraged the inhabitants to kill Tutsis.

Before and during the massacres of 1994 in Butare, Kanyabashi is said to have distributed arms to the militia and certain civilians with the aim of exterminating the Tutsi population and the moderate Hutus. Between March and June 1994, he allegedly helped with and facilitated the military training of militia units from the commune of Ngoma.

On 21 and 22 April 1994, Tutsis fleeing the massacres went to the village of Kabakobwa, after allegedly having been promised by Kanyabashi that he would protect them there. He was said instead to have ordered his subordinates, and encouraged Hutu civilians, to eliminate the Tutsis that had sought refuge there. Around 4pm on 22 April 1994, his subordinates, aided by Hutu peasants and the militia, attacked the refugees. During the attack, Kanyabashi reportedly called up members of the presidential guards as reinforcements and on arrival they also participated in the killings.

Towards the end of April 1994, Kanyabashi allegedly escorted two busloads of Tutsis, all of whom had sought refuge in the prefectural buildings, to the Rango forest accompanied by members of the local police. Upon their arrival, the Tutsi refugees were detained in a fenced enclosure. During the ensuing weeks, the refugees were deprived of food and subjected to beatings. Several died but others were rescued in early July 1994 on the arrival of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) (an opposition movement almost entirely composed of Tutsi refugees and led by Paul Kagame).

Around that period of time, Tutsis fleeing the massacres had gathered in the Matyazo clinic in Ngoma commune in order to seek refuge. Kanyabashi was said to have gone there and demanded them to stay put for their own safety. Nevertheless, shortly thereafter Kanyabashi allegedly ordered the soldiers to open fire on these refugees. Several Tutsis were killed in the shootings.

In that same period, Kanyabashi reportedly held a reunion in the parish of Ngoma in order to assure the civilians that there would be no further massacres. Many Tutsis had sought refuge in the parish in trying to escape the massacres, including among them survivors of the attack on the Matyazo clinic. On the morning of 30 April 1994, a group of armed soldiers and numerous Interahamwe (an extremist Hutu militia) came to the parish church of Ngoma and ordered the refugees out of the church, telling them that they would be taken to a nearby camp-site where they would be safe. However, on the way, they were attacked and massacred by the Interahamwe in a sports field, just adjacent to the parish.

In early May 1994, Tutsis from the region of Mare, who had sought refuge in the University Hospital of Butare, were fearful of returning to their region. Kanyabashi, who was present at the hospital, allegedly promised to protect them and to provide them with a military escort to accompany them safely back to their homes. Kanyabashi reportedly left the hospital first at the head of a long line of refugees, who were subsequently slaughtered instead of being accompanied back to their homes. On 15 May 1994, Kanyabashi and members of the military were said to have checked the identity cards of patients in the Butare hospital in order to identify who were the Tutsis. Those selected were then allegedly taken away by the military in the presence of Kanyabashi, following which they were killed.

Between mid May and mid June 1994, Kanyabashi and Sylvain Nsabimana, the préfet of Butare, ordered that Tutsis, who had sought refuge in the Butare prefectural building, be transported to Nyaruhengeri commune and specifically to Nyange. During that trip, they were attacked by armed groups and many of them were killed. Many of those who escaped returned to the prefectural building in Butare. During the weeks that followed, Kanyabashi and the military allegedly selected certain refugees and led them by force to the woods neighbouring the Evangelic School of Rwanda. They were never seen again. During a June 1994 meeting in the prefectural offices between some of the main authorities of the prefecture and their subordinates, Kanyabashi reportedly told the préfet, that all Tutsis remaining in the office building should be exterminated.

On or around 4 July 1994, confronted with the approaching troops of the FPR, Kanyabashi fled from Rwanda. On 28 June 1995 he was arrested in Belgium.

legal procedure

The Belgian authorities opened a criminal investigation against Kanyabashi in February 1995. Based on information assembled, Kanyabashi was arrested on 28 June 1995 in Belgium. In January 1996, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) demanded Belgium to decline jurisdiction, and to transfer the accused to be judged by the ICTR.

On 8 November 1996, Kanyabashi was transferred to the penitentiary centre of the United Nations in Arusha, Tanzania.

Kanyabashi was accused of the following crimes: «Conspiracy to commit Genocide», «Genocide » or alternatively «Complicity in Genocide», as well as «Direct and Public Incitement to Commit Genocide». He was furthermore charged with «Murder and Extermination of persons as a Crime Against Humanity», «Persecution on Political, Racial or Religious grounds as a Crime Against Humanity», «other Inhuman Acts as a Crime Against Humanity» and of «War Crimes».He pleaded not guilty with regard to all those charges.

At the request of the Prosecutor, the ICTR decided on 6 October 1999 to combine the cases against Kanyabashi and five other individuals accused of crimes committed in Butare during 1994.The five co-accused are: Pauline Nyiramasuhuko (Minister of family and women’s affairs) and her son, Arsène Shalom Ntahobali (leader of a militia group), Sylvain Nsabimana (prefect of Butare), Alphonse Nteziryayo (commander of the military police, then prefect of Butare) and Elie Ndayambaje (mayor of Muganza).

Kanyabashi, along with his five co-defendants, appealed the first instance verdict.

The Appeals Chamber delivered its judgment on 14 December 2015, reducing Kanyabashi’s sentence to 20 years of imprisonment and consequently ordering his release in consideration of the time already spent in prison. The Appeals Chamber ruled that his right to be tried without undue delay had been violated. It also reversed his convictions for genocide, extermination and persecution as crimes against humanity, and violence to life, health, and physical or mental well-being of persons as war crimes. It dismissed Kanyabashi’s appeal in all other respects.



The verdict of the Appeals Court delivered in December 2015 marks the end of the ICTR’s work. The « Butare Six » trial is the longest and also the most costly trial in the history of international criminal justice (it lasted for 14 years). The proceedings were particularly lengthy not least because of difficulties with certain witnesses and the extreme length of examinations. Several expert witnesses spent a month on the stand. During the Defence case, conflicts of interest between the accused added to the lengthiness of the proceedings.


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.


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.


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.