Rwandan general testifies over shootingBy: DONNA BRYSON
JOHANNESBURG – In a sensational trial that might confirm or debunk suspicions Rwanda has deployed hit teams against dissidents abroad, a former Rwandan military commander who had a falling out with the country’s president testified on Wednesday that he feared becoming a prisoner in his homeland before fleeing to South Africa, where he was shot.
Three Rwandans and three Tanzanians are charged with trying to kill General Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa in 2010. Rwanda’s former military chief was shot on June 19, 2010, in his car when he and his wife were returning home from shopping. Assassins then allegedly tried to finish the job after Nyamwasa was hospitalized.
Rwandan authorities have repeatedly denied involvement. Last year, British police warned Rwandan exiles in Britain that their lives were in danger, and the threat was believed to have emanated from the Rwandan government. In Sweden earlier this year, a Rwandan diplomat was expelled because he was engaged in “refugee espionage,” according to a person close to the Swedish government.
At the trial in Johannesburg, a South African lawyer hired by Rwanda’s government to monitor the proceedings rose to speak after the prosecutor told the court he wanted Nyamwasa to describe his background. Gerhard van der Merwe, Rwanda’s lawyer, said that could lead to speculation about government involvement.
“The consequences in doing that could be severe,” van der Merwe said.
Magistrate Stanley Mkhari ordered van der Merwe to remain silent for rest of the trial because “the government of Rwanda is not a party to the process.”
Since coming to South Africa in 2010, Nyamwasa has accused Rwandan President Paul Kagame of crushing dissent and trampling on democracy after the two worked together to end the 1994 Rwanda genocide that left more than 500 000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus dead. Rwandans in exile have accused Kagame of using his agents to hunt down his foes abroad.
Security has been tight throughout the year-long proceedings, with heavily armed police officers in the court. For the first time on Wednesday, the officers cleared the court and brought in sniffer dogs to search it before the general began his testimony
Kagame led the Rwandan Patriotic Front to victory in Rwanda in 1994, ending the genocide. Nyamwasa served in Kagame’s security apparatus and was army chief from 1998 to 2001, when he left to study global security in Britain. He later was appointed Rwanda’s national security coordinator and then ambassador to India.
In court on Wednesday, as his wife and other supporters watched from the gallery, Nyamwasa described returning from India for his mother’s funeral and to attend a governing party meeting in 2010.
“The purpose of the meeting was to harass me,” he said, saying he was accused of defying party discipline for actions that in some cases dated back years. He said he had opposed moves against Hutu politicians who had joined the post-genocide government, seeing attacks on leading Hutus as undermining unity and reconciliation.
He said he was asked to write a letter of apology, and that he had seen such letters used to discredit others, and even as evidence in court cases that resulted in jail terms.
“I recognised, first of all, that I would be arrested, and that after the arrest, I would not be granted due process of law,” he testified Wednesday.
He said he told party officials he would write the letter and present it to Kagame the next day. He said he never intended to write the letter.
“I left the country and fled,” he recounted.
He was not asked whether he believes the Rwandan government was behind the attempt to kill him.
In Rwanda, a military court last year convicted Nyamwasa and three other dissidents in absentia and sentenced them to 20 years in prison for threatening state security and on other charges they deny.
Questions have been raised about Nyamwasa’s conduct when he was close to Kagame. Nyamwasa and other senior Tutsis are accused of waging an extermination campaign against Hutus in the aftermath of Rwanda’s genocide – which Nyamwasa denies.
Observers speculate Kagame saw Nyamwasa as a political rival who was becoming too powerful. In South Africa, working with other dissidents here and elsewhere, Nyamwasa established the Rwandan National Congress, which they say is dedicated to pursuing peaceful political change in their homeland.
Three Rwandans, among them a prominent businessman, and three Tanzanians accused in the Nyamwasa shooting are charged with attempted murder and conspiracy to commit murder, among other charges. They pleaded not guilty. Evidence presented earlier this week includes confessions and other incriminating statements three defendants made to police. The defendants told police they do not know who ordered the attack on the general. They said they were approached by a Rwandan they could not identify.
South African prosecutors have said key witnesses have sought police protection in South Africa because they fear Rwanda’s government.
Previous testimony in the South African trial has hinted that shadowy figures were determined to kill Nyamwasa, trying more than once and offering large amounts of cash to draw in conspirators.
After Nyamwasa survived the shooting, prosecutors said the people pursuing him plotted to kill him in his South African hospital bed. That case was dropped when a key witness claimed he had been forced to testify against the defendants.
Last year, after a Rwandan journalist who was a frequent critic of his government was shot and killed in Uganda, Human Rights Watch urged Uganda’s government to protect Rwandan dissidents living in Uganda.
Inside Rwanda, opposition politicians, journalists and civil rights activists have been harassed, human rights groups say.