Pauline Nyiramasuhuko

07.05.2016 ( Last modified: 22.07.2016 )
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Pauline Nyiramasuhuko was born in 1946 in the commune of Ndora, Butare prefecture, Rwanda. Born into a farming family, she became a local success story.

At college, she became friends with Agathe Kanziga who, later, was to marry the Hutu President Juvénal Habyarimana. After completing her studies, she left Butare for Kigali where she took up a post in the Ministry for Social Affairs. At the age of 22, Nyiramasuhuko became National Inspector at the Ministry. In 1968, she married Maurice Ntahobali, who became President of the Rwandan National Assembly, then Minister of Higher Education and finally Rector of the National University of Butare. Nyiramasuhuko then started her law studies.

In 1992, at a time when she was already one of the leaders of the National Republican Movement for Democracy (MRND, the Presidential party), she was nominated to the position of Minister for the Family and Woman’s Affairs. She held this position up until July 1994, the date at which she fled Rwanda. In this capacity, she held authority and control over all of the institutions and the personnel within her Ministry. Furthermore, she attended meetings of the Council of Ministers where she became acquainted with the socio-political situation of the country and where she was made aware of government policies. She also participated in the development and implementation of the policies adopted by the interim government.

From the end of 1990 until July 1994, Nyiramasuhuko was said to have adhered to, and participated in the detailed development of a plan aimed at exterminating the Tutsis. Amongst other elements, this plan included recourse to hatred and ethnic violence, the training of and distribution of arms to militias as well as the drafting of lists of people to be eliminated. In the accomplishment of this plan, she reportedly planned, ordered and participated in the massacres.

From April to July 1994, Nyiramasuhuko was said to have publicly incited the population to exterminate the Tutsi population. Between 9 April and 14 July 1994, during various meetings of the Council of Ministers, several ministers, one of which being Nyiramasuhuko, reportedly made requests for arms for distribution within their home prefectures in order to perpetrate massacres. During the course of these meetings, the interim government adopted directives and issued instructions to préfets (prefecture heads) and mayors which were aimed at inciting, encouraging and helping them to commit massacres. To ensure that these directives were carried out, the interim government designated, for each prefecture, a minister responsible for what was called “pacification”. Nyiramasuhuko was named as the minister responsible for “pacification” for the Butare prefecture.

Soon after the arrival of Nyiramasuhuko in Butare, cars with loudspeakers drove around the streets of Butare announcing that the Red Cross had set up camp in a stadium not far from there to provide food and shelter to the population. On 25 April 1994, thousands of Tutsis decided to go to the stadium. It turned out to be a trap. Instead of finding food and shelter, the refugees were surrounded by the Interahamwe (extremist Hutu militia). Nyimarasuhuko then allegedly supervised an attack against them and encouraged the participation of the Interahamwe. She was also said to have ordered that the women be raped before being killed. At the end of this massacre, Nyiramasuhuko reportedly went to an encampment where a group of Interahamwe were holding prisoner some 70 Tutsi women and young girls. According to the Prosecutor of the ICTR (International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda), she gave an order to the Interahamwe to rape the women before sprinkling them with petrol and burning them to death.

The préfet of Butare, the only one of Tutsi origin in the country, openly contested the massacres in his prefecture. For this reason, thousands of Tutsis had sought refuge in Butare from the beginning of the massacres. Being aware of the specific situation predominating in Butare, Nyiramasuhuko dismissed the préfet and then reportedly incited the population to get involved in the massacres. Some time after this, the préfet was arrested and murdered. On 20 April 1994, Nyiramasuhuko reportedly asked the new préfet, Sylvain Nsabimana, to provide her with military assistance in order to proceed with further massacres in Ngoma commune.

Between April and July 1994, a roadblock was set up close to the home of Nyiramasuhuko. The latter, together with her son Arsène Shalom Ntahobali mounted the guard over this roadblock. During this entire period, with military help, this roadblock was used as a means to identify, abduct and murder Tutsis.

Between 19 April and end of June 1994, Nyiramasuhuko and her son, accompanied by the Interahamwe and the military, were reported to have gone to the offices of the prefecture on several occasions to pick up Tutsis. Those who tried to resist were assaulted and in some instances killed on the spot. As for the others, they were taken away to different places in the prefecture, and in particular to the forest close to the Rwandan Evangelical School, where they were executed. Just before they were transported away, the victims were often forced to take off their clothes before being forced into the vehicles. Nyiramasuhuko is also said to have selected Tutsi woman, at this point, to be raped.

In July 1994, in the face of the advancing FPR (Front Patriotique Rwandais, an opposition group consisting mainly of Tutsi refugees and led by Paul Kagame), Nyiramasuhuko fled Rwanda in the direction of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). After going into hiding in a refugee camp in the DRC, she finally made her way to Kenya, where she lived as a fugitive for almost three years. On 18 July 1997, she was arrested in Nairobi.

legal procedure

Pauline Nyiramasuhuko was arrested, on request of the Chief Prosecutor of the ICTR (International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda), on 18 July in Nairobi, Kenya. She was transferred on the same day to the United Nations prison quarters in Arusha, Tanzania.

On her initial court appearance on 3 September 1997, Nyiramasuhuko pleaded not guilty to the five charges with which she was indicted, based on the initial indictment. Nyiramasuhuko was accused of “conspiracy to commit genocide”, “genocide”, or alternatively “complicity in genocide”, as well as “direct and public incitement to commit genocide”, “murder as a crime against humanity”, “extermination as a crime against humanity”, “persecutions on political, racial and religious grounds as a crime against humanity”, “inhumane acts as a crime against humanity” and various war crimes. In a decision dated 10 August 1999, rape as a crime against humanity was added to the indictment, which brought the number of charges up to eleven. Nyiramasuhuko again pleaded not guilty on 12 August 1999.

On 6 October 1999, the ICTR, on request of the Prosecutor, ordered a combined trial for Nyiramasuhuko and five other persons accused of crimes committed in the Butare prefecture of Rwanda in 1994. The five co-accused are: her son Arsène Shalom Ntahobali (leader of a militia group), Joseph Kanyabashi (Mayor of Ngoma), Sylvain Nsabimana (Préfet of Butare) and Elie Ndayambaje (Mayor of Muganza).

The trial entitled “the collective trial of the Butare group” or “Butare Six” commenced on 12 June 2001 before the Second Trial Chamber of the ICTR.

The closing arguments began on 20 April 2009. The longest and the largest trial before the ICTR ended on 1 May 2009 after parties concluded their closing arguments.

On 24 June 2011 Nyiramasuhuko was sentenced to life imprisonment by the ICTR, after being convicted of conspiracy to commit genocide, genocide, extermination, rape, persecution, violence to life in the form of murder and other inhumane acts. In the summary of the judgement, the Tribunal indicated that the former minister “had agreed with other members of the interim government to commit genocide in Butare”, and she “exercised command responsibility over the Interahamwe (militia) who committed the rapes in Butare prefecture office”.

Nyiramasuhuko, along with her five co-defendants, appealed the first instance verdict.

The appeal of the six officials from Butare began on 14 April 2015. During the plea hearings, Nyiramasuhuko claimed her innocence. Her defence team argued that the first instance trial verdict was based on contradictory and incoherent testimonies, and called for a reconsideration of the evidence. The defence also contended that the trial judges erred in convicting Nyiramasuhuko of conspiracy to commit genocide, as this crime was not included in the indictment.

The prosecution requested the judges to uphold the first instance conviction, stressing the key role Nyiramasuhuko played in the genocide.

The Appeals Chamber delivered its judgment on 14 December 2015, reducing Nyiramasuhuko sentence to 47 years of imprisonment. The Appeals Chamber ruled that her right to be tried without undue delay had been violated. It found proprio motu that the Trial Chamber erred in convicting Nyiramasuhuko for persecution as a crime against humanity since the crimes had not been committed on one of the three discriminatory grounds enumerated in the Statute of the ICTR. The Appeals Chamber further dismissed Nyiramasuhuko’s appeal in all other respects


Pauline Nyiramasuhuko is the first woman to be indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. She is also the first woman to be indicted for “rape as a crime against humanity” in the whole history of international criminal law.
The « Butare Six » trial has been the longest and also the most costly trial in the history of international criminal justice. 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 case for the defence, conflicts of interest which arose between the defendants added to the lengthiness of the proceedings.

The verdict of the Appeals Court delivered on 14 December 2015 marked the end of the ICTR’s work. The trial of Nyiramasuhuko, which started in June 2001, lasted 14 years.


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 Kagameannounced the official end of Gacaca courts’ activity.