Rwanda suspended cooperation with a U.N. tribunal today after the court, on a technicality, freed a former official accused of helping organize the 1994 genocide.
The government criticized Wednesday's decision by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda to immediately release Jean-Bosco Barayagwiza, a former Foreign Ministry official who was being held in Arusha, Tanzania, where the court is based.
"Barayagwiza's release serves as a pretext for all other perpetrators of the genocide to live with impunity all over the world," said a statement sent by Foreign Minister Augustin Iyamuremye to tribunal officials. "Under those conditions, the government of Rwanda does not see how it can continue to cooperate with the tribunal."
Tribunal spokesman Kingsley Moghalu said that suspending cooperation "will have serious consequences on the tribunal's ability to conduct its trials," because most of the prosecution witnesses come from inside Rwanda.
"Our ability to access them will be severely impaired without the cooperation of Rwanda," Moghalu said in a telephone interview from Arusha.
Judges at the appeals chamber in The Hague said Barayagwiza had been detained too long without trial--he was transferred to the tribunal in 1997--and ordered him returned to Cameroon, where he had been arrested.
More than 500,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed when an extremist Hutu government began its deadly rampage in April 1994. The genocide ended in July that year when Tutsi-led rebels in exile in Uganda returned, captured Kigali and formed a national unity government.
Barayagwiza was a senior official for a Rwandan radio station that incited the killings and was a leader of the most extreme Hutu party, the Coalition for the Defense of the Republic. He has pleaded not guilty to six genocide-related charges.
Rwandan Attorney General Gerald Gahima urged the U.N. Security Council and the tribunal to reverse the precedent and consider the gravity of the charges against Barayagwiza.
"This has the potential to undo all the good work they are doing," Gahima said. But he also said that the suspension would be "within limits of the international law." Under U.N. resolutions, Rwanda is obliged to cooperate with the tribunal or face sanctions.
No reaction from the tribunal was immediately available.
Rwanda, which has criticized the court's slow pace and lack of a death penalty, has been conducting its own genocide trials of more than 130,000 people.
Its courts have tried and passed judgment on 1,500 suspects, compared with five judgments rendered by the U.N. tribunal in Tanzania. On April 24, 1998, Rwanda carried out the first 22 executions of those condemned to death.