Former Rwandan Official on Trial in France for Genocide Charges

by Tony Iozzo
Impunity Watch Reporter, Europe

PARIS, France – A French court began a genocide trial on Tuesday against a former Rwandan intelligence officer who fled Rwanda after the 1994 genocide.

If convicted, Simbikangwa would face life imprisonment. (Photo courtesy of Al Jazeera)

In what has been promised to be the first of several prosecutions of former Rwandan officials, Pascal Simbikangwa appeared before a panel of judges in Paris to face the charges of complicity in genocide and crime against humanity. Simbikangwa, 54, had been sought under an international arrest warrant beginning in 2008. He had been in hiding on the island of Mayotte, a French territory in the Indian Ocean.

Simbikangwa could receive a sentence of life imprisonment if he is convicted. The initial indictment, drafted by Judge Olivier Leurent, stated that Simbikangwa had stashed a massive amount of weapons in his home, as well as harassing members of the minority ethnic group- the Tutsi. Simbikangwa is a Hutu, which was the ethnic group that constituted the majority of the government during Rwanda’s 1994 genocide.

The trial is expected to last seven weeks, and the panel of judges is expected to hear from 53 witnesses. The potential witnesses include Simbikangwa’s former neighbors back in Kigali, the Rwandan capital; French historians, and former Rwandan officials. The trial is scheduled to conclude with testimony from Tharcisse Renzaho, a former politician and prefect, who was sentenced to life in prison by the United Nations’s International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.

France has widely been considered a refuge for Rwandan fugitives that participated in the country’s ethnic genocide, which killed over 800,000 people in 100 days back in 1994. Human rights groups see Simbikangwa’s trial an effort by France to shed this reputation, and end the protection of the fugitives.

France also has been accused of providing military training to the Hutus, and has never tried anyone accused of complicity in the Rwandan genocide. After restoring diplomatic relations with Rwanda in 2009, Paris appointed five judges to investigate the matter of the Rwandan fugitives and opened a police unit that specialized in genocide crimes.

In addition to the criminal case, five human rights groups have filed civil suits against Simbikangwa. On Tuesday, the civil plaintiffs included the Collective of Civil Plaintiffs for Rwanda, the group that first found Simbikangwa in Mayotte and filed a complaint against him.

In Europe, several countries including Belgium, a former colonial overseer of Rwanda, as well as Norway, have already brought Rwandans to justice in their countries.

For more information, please see:

Al Jazeera – Landmark Rwanda Genocide Trial Opens in Paris – 4 February 2014

BBC News – Rwanda Ex-Spy Chief Tried in Paris on Genocide Charges – 4 February 2014

France 24 – 20 Years On, France Confronts Rwandan Genocide – 4 February 2014

NY Times – Former Rwandan Intelligence Chief Goes on Trial For 1994 Genocide – 4 February 2014

87 Exonerated In United States During 2013

By Brandon R. Cottrell 
Impunity Watch Reporter, North America

WASHINGTON, D.C., United States – According to the National Registry of Exonerations, 87 people were exonerated in 2013, which is a record amount.  The previous high, 83, was set in 2009, and over 1,200 exonerations have taken place in the United States since 1989, when amounts first began to be recorded.

Nicole Harris was recently exonerated, after it was determined that her son’s accidental death had been mischaracterized as a homicide (Photo Courtesy Huffington Post).

Samuel Gross, the lead author of the 2013 report, says that the exonerations are “good news because we are more likely to address the problem that caused false conviction in the first place but that these cases . . . are only a small proportion of errors that actually occur [and] most times, they’re never discovered.”

While DNA evidence influenced the exoneration in a large number of cases, as it “has lent credibility to convicts’ claims of innocence in the eyes of the courts and the prosecutors,” many were also influenced by law enforcement.  The 2013 report said that the “police and prosecutors appear to be taking increasingly active roles in reinvestigating possible false convictions, and [are] more responsive to claims of innocence from convicted defendants.”

Of those exonerated, nearly half had been wrongfully convicted of murder.  Most startlingly, however, is that approximately one third of the exonerations involved cases where no crime had even occurred.  In such instances, many of the exonerated plead guilty (or confessed) in exchange for reduced sentences, as they were not willing to risk a lengthier sentence if the case went to trial and they lost.

For example, Nicole Harris, one of the exonerated, was convicted of first-degree murder for the death of her 4-year old son and received a 30-year sentence.  Her conviction was based primarily on a videotaped confession, which was recorded after “an intense 27 hours of police questioning . . . [where] officers threatened her, called her names, pushed her, withheld food and water, and denied her use of the bathroom.”

Additionally, in that case, investigators refused to consider an alternative explanation for the death – that the elastic band from the bed sheet wrapped around his threat as he jumped off his bed pretending to be Spiderman.  Harris, who spent more than 7 years in prison, was exonerated when the prosecutor’s office moved to dismiss the charge, after evidence was introduced that the police had indeed coerced her into confessing.

Though justice was delayed for these 87 individuals, and is likely being delayed to hundreds currently in prison, Rob Warden, executive director of the Center of Wrongful Convictions, has said that “the more we learn about wrongful convictions, the better we’ll be at preventing them, and, of course, at correcting them after the fact as best we can.”

For further information, please see the following:

BBC – Study: Record Number Of US Convicts Cleared In 2013 – 4 Feb. 2014

Huffington Post – A Record Number Of Inmates Were Exonerated Last Year For Crimes They Didn’t Commit – 4 Feb. 2014

Global Post – Wrongful Convictions Overturned At Faster Clip In 2013 – 4 Feb. 2014 

Time U.S. – Record Number of U.S. Prisoners Exonerated in 2013 – 4 Feb. 2014

Widespread Corruption Reported Across Europe, Suggestions for Change Follow

By Ben Kopp
Impunity Watch Reporter, Europe

BRUSSELS, European Union – The European Union Anti-Corruption Report, a first of its kind, highlighted “breathtaking” corruption across the EU. The report offered suggestions to help reduce corruption.

A new report revealed perceptions of corruption across all 28 EU countries. (Photo courtesy of Irish Independent)

While presenting the European Union Anti-Corruption Report, EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstroem stated that corruption in the EU costs the bloc’s economy 120 billion euros per year. That amount is roughly the same as the EU’s annual budget. Malmstroem called the extent of EU corruption “breathtaking.”

The first-of-its-kind report analyzed all 28 EU Member States, looking into existing measures, problems, and successful policies related to corruption. Over three-fourths of surveyed persons in the report said they believed corruption is widespread in their own country. More than a half added that corruption levels were on the rise.

The report suggested more accountability standards, control mechanisms in public authorities, improve the effectiveness of courts and police, protection for whistleblowers, more transparent lobbying practices, and increased transparency through e-tools.

The EU Commission plans to meet with all Member States, European Parliament, and national parliaments to discuss and work on recommendations discussed in the report. A follow-up report is being planned for about 2016 to measure European progress.

“There are no corruption-free zones in Europe,” Malmstroem said.

While carrying the lowest levels of witnessed corruption, Finland and Denmark each had three percent of respondents claim that corruption in their country was widespread.

Greece and Italy ranked as the top countries in which respondents believed corruption was widespread; Lithuania, Spain, and the Czech Republic tied for the third place ranking. The report highlighted that countries behind in their scores of “perceptions and actual experience of corruption” include Croatia, the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Romania, and Greece.

“In these countries,” the report stated, “between 6 and 29 percent of respondents indicated that they were asked or expected to pay a bribe in the past 12 months, while 84 percent up to 99 percent think that corruption is widespread in their country.”

When it came to doing business in the EU, more than 40% of companies claimed that corruption is a problem for European operations.

In a press conference, Malmstroem said that corruption destroys democracy and the trust in public institutions. “It undermines our internal market, it hampers foreign investment, it costs taxpayers millions, and in many cases it helps organized crime groups do their dirty work.”

While Bulgaria, Romania, and Italy were noted hotspots for organized crime, white-collar crimes and VAT fraud were deemed widespread in many EU countries.

“The price of not acting is simply too high,” Malmstroem concluded.

For further information, please see:

RT – Cost of Corruption across EU Equals Its Annual Budget – EU Commission – February 4, 2014

AFP – ‘Breathtaking’ EU Corruption Costs 120 bn Euros a Year – February 3, 2014

BBC – Corruption across EU ‘Breathtaking’ – EU Commission – February 3, 2014

Irish Independent – Corruption Costs EU £99bn a Year – February 3, 2014

New York Times – Study Details Graft in European Union – February 3, 2014

U.S. Poised to Table a Human Rights Resolution against Sri Lanka

By Brian Lanciault

Impunity Watch Reporter, Asia

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka– State Department officials announced Saturday that the United States will table a United Nations human rights resolution against Sri Lanka, putting new pressure on Colombo to address war crimes allegations.

Assistant Secretary of State Nisha Biswal addresses reporters along with U.S. Ambassador Michele Sison (right) on Saturday. (Photo Courtesy of AFP/Getty Images)

The UN has already called on Sri Lanka to punish military personnel responsible for atrocities in the civil war that the government won in 2009.  Washington says the human rights climate on the island is worsening each day.

Nisha Biswal, the assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia, held talks with Foreign Minister G.L. Peiris over a range of issues including allegations that government troops killed thousands of Tamil civilians during the final months of the war in 2009.

“Lack of progress in Sri Lanka has led to a great deal of frustration and skepticism in my government and in the international community,” assistant secretary of state Nisha Biswal told reporters in Colombo after her two-day visit.

“There hasn’t been sufficient action taken by the government to address the issues of justice and accountability. We heard from many people about people who are still unaccounted for, whose whereabouts and fates are unknown to their family members.”

Biswal declined to say what would comprise the resolution set to be tabled at the March session of the UN Human Rights Council, but US embassy officials have said it may call for a full-scale international investigation into Sri Lanka and their military affairs.

“We understand growing concern, frustration, and skepticism among many in my country and many in the international community that has led to increasing calls for international investigation and an international process.” Biswal said.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government, which finally put down an exhaustive 26-year rebellion by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2009, has rejected UN calls for an international inquiry and said repeated requests from overseas were to please the large Tamil diaspora in the west.

A top Sri Lankan official announced last week that an international inquiry into war crimes would bring “chaos” and insisted that the government’s national reconciliation process must be given several more years to work.

Biswal acknowledged that the reconciliation process needed more time, but said credible steps had to be taken now.

“The culture of deterioration of human rights gives us great concern when churches and mosques are burnt down and people feel that they cannot practice their faiths freely and without fear. Then I believe the urgency that has gripped the international community is justified,” she said.

The British Prime Minister, David Cameron, has said he will push for the international inquiry into war crimes allegations if Sri Lanka does not conduct its own probe by March.

Some Sri Lankans who met with Biswal told reporters that they had told her an international process was essential.

“We do not have confidence in a local investigation because that would be done by the military, who are accused of war crimes,” one activist from northern Jaffna peninsula told Reuters, on condition of anonymity.

A UN panel indicated that about 40,000 mainly Tamil civilians died in the final few months of the war. Both sides committed atrocities, but army shelling killed most victims, it concluded. Separatist Tamil Tiger rebels renowned for the use of child soldiers and suicide bombings battled with government forces since 1983.

For more information, please see:

New York Times– U.S. Envoy to Visit Sri Lanka as Pressure Builds for War Crimes Inquiry— 30 January 2014

The Guardian– US to table UN human rights resolution criticizing Sri Lanka over ‘war crimes’— 1 February 2014

AFP– US envoy in Sri Lanka as pressure builds over war crimes— 31 January 2014

NDTV– US envoy to visit Sri Lanka as pressure grows for war crimes inquiry— 31 January 2014

Major Charity Drops Hollywood Sponsor over Superb Bowl Ad

By Kathryn Maureen Ryan
Impunity Watch Reporter, Middle East

RAMALLAH, The West Bank – Super Bowl XLVIII, an otherwise boring game, may be remembered more for the controversy caused by its famous multi-million dollar commercials than it will be for the excitement on the gridiron. One of these ads may have even cost a Hollywood starlet her position as the public face of a major international charity.

Scarlet Johansson appearing in SodaStream’s commercial for the 2014 Superbowl, a sporting watched by more than 100 Million viewers. (Photo courtesy of The Jerusalem Post)

The UK based Oxfam charity, an internationally acclaimed charity dedicated to the eradication of poverty and famine across the globe, has announced that it accepted the resignation of actress Scarlett Johansson as an ambassador for the charity.

Although Johansson officially resigned, Oxfam says she her resignation came as a result of a conflict of interest representation of the company that makes the machines is a conflict of interests. The “conflict of interest” arose from Johansson’s decision to appear in a Super Bowl commercial for SodaStream, a consumer product that converts water and flavouring into carbonated soft drinks.

The organization stated that “While Oxfam respects the independence of our ambassadors, Ms Johansson’s role promoting the company SodaStream is incompatible with her role as an Oxfam Global Ambassador.”

Like many members of the international community Oxfam believes the ongoing construction of settlements in Palestinian territories in the West Bank are a violation of international law. The charity said it opposes all trade with Israeli settlements in the occupied territories. The organizing, which is committed to the eradication of global poverty, believes that companies that do business in illegally constructed settlements in the West Bank not only encourages the further development of illegal settlements but contribute to the spread of poverty in Palestine. In a statement the organization said “Oxfam believes that businesses, such as SodaStream, that operate in settlements further the ongoing poverty and denial of rights of the Palestinian communities that we work to support.”

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is working both Israel and Palestinian leaders on an Israeli-Palestinian framework agreement, the expansion of illegal settlements in the occupied territories is a critical issue in the drafting of this agreement.

The public stance taken by Oxfam, often regarded as a pro-Palestine organization, and other international organizations has fuelled fears that international opposition to illegal settlements in the West Bank may come at a large economic price for the state of Israel.

Israeli Finance Minister Yair Lapid reiterated these fears by warning that if negotiations break down in the ongoing talks between Israel and the Palestinian Boycotts of Israeli goods will be likely. He said that if Israel face a “reality of a European boycott, even a very partial one, Israel’s economy will retreat backward and every Israeli citizen will feel it straight in the pocket.”

SodaStream fired back at Oxfam’s criticisms by accusing the charity of funding the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, allegations that the charity denies.

For more information please see:

The Jerusalem Post – SodaStream Accuses Oxfam of Funding BDS – 03 February 2014

ABC News – Scarlett Johansson, Oxfam Part Ways Over Politics – 30 January 2014

CNN – Oxfam Loses Scarlett Johansson over SodaStream Ads and Jewish Settlements – 30 January 2014

Oxfam – Oxfam Accepts Resignation of Scarlett Johansson – 30 January 2014

Colombian Priest Who Ran Far-Right Militia Captured

By Ellis Cortez
Impunity Watch Reporter, South America

BOGOTA, Colombia – The Colombian Attorney General’s Office has announced the capture of a fugitive Catholic priest who was convicted in absentia last year of organizing a killer far-right militia made up of members of a dismantled paramilitary bloc.

Colombia nabs fugitive priest linked to criminal gangs
Gang members give their guns during a ceremony at a church in Medellin, Colombia. (Photo Courtesy of AFP Photo/Raul Arboleda)

After months-long search, Rev Oscar Albeiro Ortiz was arrested in the town of La Virginia, in the central-western province of Risaralda. The Colombian Army took part in the raid.

Ortiz, a former parish priest of a Roman Catholic Church in San Antonio de Prado, was arrested in 2010, but was cleared by a lower court and continued to maintain that he was innocent. This past August, Ortiz was retried and sentenced to 19 years in prison. The High Court in Medellin convicted him in absentia of giving orders to a group known as “Los Desmovilizados de El Limonar.”

Ortiz created the group in San Antonio de Prado in 2003. During this time, Ortiz had accompanied members of the paramilitary bloc and then recruited them after the bloc was ostensibly disbanded under a peace pact brokered by the government of then-president Alvaro Uribe. The group engaged in kidnappings, extortion, and murder.

Authorities say investigators using wiretaps had overheard Ortiz pointing out people as leftist rebels who later turned up murdered. People beaten or driven from their homes by paramilitary henchmen of Ortiz were told they were being punished “for disobeying the orders of the priest.”

The so-called paramilitaries, organized under the umbrella of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, or AUC, committed more than 70% of the killings in the country’s nearly half-century-old dirty war, according to prosecutors.

The AUC, accused of committing numerous human rights violations, demobilized more than 31,000 of its fighters between the end of 2003 and mid-2006 as part of the peace process with the Uribe administration.

Under the terms of the 2005 Peace and Justice Law, former AUC members face a maximum of eight years in prison if convicted of any of the scores of massacres of suspected rebel sympathizers.

Their foes in the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia are now engaged in peace talks with the government in Cuba.

For more information please see:

ABC News Colombian Priest Who Ran Far-Right Militia Nabbed 1 February 2014

The Guardian Catholic priest who ran right-wing death squad arrested in Colombia 31 January 2014

The Washington Post Colombian priest who ran far-right militia nabbed 31 January 2014

Fox News Priest captured who ran far-right death squad in Colombian suburb 31 January 2014

Al-Qaeda Forces Kill Rebel Leaders in Syria

By Darrin Simmons
Impunity Watch Reporter, Middle East

DAMASCUS, Syria-A twin car bombing attack on near Syria’s northern city of Aleppo occurred Sunday morning.  The attack was led by Al Qaeda and targeted and killed their rival leader of the Islamic brigade.

Syrian troops advance into Aleppo (photo courtesy of Al Jazeera)

The attack occurred on the cuff of rebel fighting throughout the Syrian civil war, as government forces continue the intense bombarding of opposition-held areas.  Syrian aircrafts bombed buildings, which buried people underneath rubble near the Bab Neirab area.

The series of military aircraft droppings of explosives over rebel-held areas on Saturday killed dozens, including one attack that killed 34 people in al-Bab.  Activists have claimed the bombings have driven Syrian forces into the eastern neighborhoods of Aleppo.

The twin suicide bombing that killed the military leader of a rebel group also resulted in the death of 26 other people.  The attack targeted the Tawheed Brigades and killed Commander Adnan Bakkour.

Al-Qaeda also killed another prominent commander, Abu Hussein al-Dik of the Suqour al-Sham, further proving that key headquarters, strategic checkpoints, and senior influential commanders were being targeted.

On Saturday, a Lebanese extremist group claimed responsibility for a suicide car bombing in a Shi’ite town that killed at least three people.  This attack was also linked to the Syrian civil war.

The bombing occurred in the northeast town of Hermel and was claimed to punish the Lebanese Shi’ite group Hezbollah, which fights with the forces of Syria President Bashar Assad.  It is the third bombing that the Nusra Front in Lebanon has claimed responsibility.

Also on Sunday, a video was posted to social networks showing a Sunni fighter beheading another man and children and adults gathered to watch.

The video shows adults cheering as the fighter cuts the other man’s head off with a small knife.  The man’s hands are tied and it was unclear if he was alive during the beheading.  Photos of the body and severed head were also posted to a separate Instagram account by a supporter of al Qaeda.

For more information, please see the following:

Al Jazeera-Al-Qaeda fighters kill Syrian rebel leaders-2 February 2014

CBS News-Al Qaeda in Syria kills rival rebel leader-2 February 2014

Hindu-Al-Qaeda fighters kill rival rebel leader in Aleppo-2 February 2014

Los Angeles Times-Al Qaeda-linked rebel leader reported killed in Syria-2 February 2014