Sylvain Nsabimana

26.04.2016 ( Last modified: 22.07.2016 )
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Sylvain Nsabimana was born on 29 July 1953 in the Mbazi commune of the Butare prefecture, Rwanda. On 19 April 1994, he was appointed préfet of Butare. He held this position until 17 June 1994, at which date he was replaced by Alphonse Ntezirayo. In this capacity, he was the representative of the executive power at prefectorial level. He held power over his immediate subordinates as well as the mayors and could officially call out the army and the national gendarmerie.

From end 1990 until July 1994, Nsabimana is 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, he is accused of having planned, ordered and participated in the massacres. From April to July 1994, Nsabimana is said to have publicly incited the population to exterminate the Tutsi population.

On 19 April 1994, the investiture ceremony for Nsabimana as the new préfet was the occasion of a large gathering of the interim government in Butare, during which the (interim) President Théodore Sindikubwabo gave a speech openly and explicitly calling on the population of Butare to participate in the massacre of the Tutsis. Nsabimana, reportedly, did not dissociate himself from this speech.

On 20 April 1994, Pauline Nyiramasuhuko is said to have requested military assistance to proceed with the massacres in the Ngoma commune. Nsabimana is said to have acceded to her request and to have given the order to the military authorities to provide her with the necessary reinforcements.

On the days following his investiture, Nsabimana is said to have called a meeting of all of the mayors of his prefecture. During this meeting he was reportedly apprised of the extent of the massacres against the Tutsis which had began in the communes of Butare. He took no measures nor made any decision to put an end to them. Furthermore, he is said to have dismissed those highly placed administrative personnel who had opposed the massacres.

Many Tutsis had sought refuge in the prefectorial offices in Butare. Beginning on 19 April 1994, the Interahamwe and the military, on several occasions, went there and assaulted the refugees. These attacks reportedly took place when Nsabimana was on the premises. Some of the refugees asked Nsabimana to afford them protection, but he is said to have stood by whilst the refugees were abducted, assaulted and killed on the spot.

Between mid-May and mid-June 1994, Nsabimana and Joseph Kanyabashi reportedly gave the order that the Tutsis who had sough refuge in the prefectorial offices be transferred to the Nyaruhengeri commune, in particular to Nyange. Following their arrival, they were attacked by armed men. Several of them were killed.

During May and June 1994, on orders from Nsabimana, refugees were said to have been transferred by the military, from the prefectorial office to the Rwandan Evangelical School (EER). They were subsequently taken to the forest close to the EER, where a large number of these refugees were beaten, then put to death by the military.

In the face of the advancing FPR (Front Patriotique Rwandais, an opposition group consisting mainly of Tutsi refugees and led by Paul Kagame), Nsabimana fled Rwanda. On 18 July 1997, he was arrested in Kenya and transferred to the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR).

legal procedure

Sylvain Nsabimana was arrested, on request of the Chief Prosecutor of the ICTR, on 18 July 1997 in Nairobi, Kenya. He was transferred on the same day to the United Nations prison quarters in Arusha, Tanzania.

Nsabimana was charged with “conspiracy to commit genocide”, “genocide”, “complicity in genocide”, as well as “public and direct 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. Nsabimana pleaded not guilty with regard to all those charges.

On 6 October 1999, the ICTR, on request of the Prosecutor, ordered a combined trial for Nsabimana and five other persons accused of crimes committed in the Butare prefecture of Rwanda in 1994. The five co-accused are Pauline Nyiramasuhuko (Minister for the Family and Women’s Development) and her son, Arsène Shalom Ntahobali (leader of a militia group), Joseph Kanyabashi (Mayor of Ngoma), Alphonse Nteziryayo (member of the Ministry of the Interior and subsequent 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 in what became to be the longest trial ever at the ICTR began on 20 April 2009. The ICTR rendered its judgement on 24 June 2011 and sentenced Nsabimana to 25 years in prison for genocide, extermination and persecution as a crime against humanity, and violence to life as a war crime. The Trial Chamber did not find that Nsabimana was a direct perpetrator in any massacre or killing perpetrated in Butare prefecture, or that he ordered or was in any other way directly associated with any given attack, but that he nevertheless failed to discharge his legal duty to protect the persons within his prefecture.

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

The Appeals Chamber delivered its judgment on 14 December 2015, reducing Nsabimana’s sentence to 18 years of imprisonment and consequently ordering his release in consideration of the time already spent in prison. The Appeals Chamber dismissed Nsabimana’s appeal in all respects. It, however, found proprio motu that his right to be tried without undue delay had been violated, and that the Trial Chamber erred in convicting Nsabimana 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 « Butare Six » trial is 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 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.

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