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Belgian Priest may face death penalty for “role” in Rwandan genocide

There’s an understandable tendency to pin some blame on Belgium for the 1994 genocide in Rwanda: Belgium’s policy of indirect rule empowered Tutsis over Hutus, and early European eugenicists made studies of Hutu and Tutsi anatomy, making “scientific” conclusions that Tutsi were superior to Hutu. Belgian authorities formalized ethnic distinctions by issuing identity cards which identified all Rwandans as Hutu, Tutsi or Twa. And when killing began in 1994 – with the death of 10 Belgian peacekeepers who were protecting Rwanda’s prime minister – Belgium withdrew its troops, accelerating the descent into genocidal chaos.

But I believe Rwanda’s “gacaca” genocide tribunals are making a mistake in prosecuting Father Guy Theunis, a Belgian Catholic priest who served in Rwanda from 1970 to 1994. The first European to be charged in Rwanda in conjunction with the genocide, Father Theunis was arrested in Kigali airport while he was in transit to Belgium from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Father Theunis ran a magazine called “Dialogue”, which republished translated excerpts of articles from a pro-Hutu extremist magazine, “Kangura”. The editor of that magazine, Hassan Ngeze, has already been sentenced to life imprisonment for his role in inciting genocide. (“Kangura” was notorious for publishing articles comparing Tutsi to cockroaches and encouraging Hutu to smash them.) As of Sunday, Theunis has been transferred from the Gacaca courts to Rwanda’s conventional court system, where he could face the death penalty.

Father Theunis asserts that his republication of articles from Kangura was part of his human rights work: “I sometimes wrote articles to press for human rights. I never republished articles from Kangura, but just translated as part of press review”. Human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch and Reporters Without Borders have come to his defense. RSF notes that Rwanda has classified Theunis as a “category one” genocidaire, accusing him of being one of the “planners, organisers, inciters, supervisors and leaders” of the genocide, which seems unduly harsh, given Theunis’s defense that he was featuring statements from “Kangura” to condemn their hateful content.

RSF’s press release advocating for Theunis’s release strays surprisingly far into the realm of speculation about Rwanda’s motives in arresting Theunis. They note that Theunis had visited Rwanda several times, always with a government issued visa, and speculate that he was trapped this time by a government interested in settling a score. They further note that almost all the witnesses for Theunis’s prosecution are ruling party members, and speculate that Theunis may be being punished for airing views from multiple political perspectives in his magazine, including views critical of Kagame’s political party and army, the RPF.

Theunis isn’t the first European to be charged in the Rwandan genocide – Belgian journalist Georges Ruggiu was sentenced to twelve years in prison by a UN tribunal for inciting genocide through radio broadcasts. But Theunis is the first to be tried in Rwanda, and his trial may be an indication of things to come, as Rwanda’s national prosecutor Emmanuel Rukangira notes that the government is developing cases against several Europeans.

I’m watching Theunis’s case not only because I’m interested in Rwanda’s recovery from the 1994 genocide, a response that’s included not only legal responses, but ongoing military involvement in the Democratic Republic of Congo, destabilizing the entire region. I’m also interested in the question of what responsibility one has in redistributing content.

A few months ago, before we had regional editors at Global Voices, one person had responsibility every day for picking several dozen blogposts from around the world to feature on the site. My friend Zephyr Teachout volunteered to take on the task one day, and described it as “one of the most terrifying experiences of her life.” What she meant, I think, was that it’s extremely difficult to know whether the opinion a blogger expresses is mainstream or extreme without understanding the full context of the political situation in a country. This is one of the reasons we moved towards asking regional editors to choose posts to reblog – they’ve got a much better understanding of politics in Morroco or Mongolia than I do and understand how to contextualize these posts in a way that it’s hard for people outside the region to do.

Obviously we haven’t reblogged any posts where someone has advocated the extermination of other people. But I can understand the need Father Theunis felt to bring to light the extreme views being expressed in magazines like “Kangura”. What’s the responsibility of a site like ours in reporting on extreme views? Is it to give an accurate picture of the views being expressed in a country? Or is the responsibility not to amplify hateful voices?

4 thoughts on “Belgian Priest may face death penalty for “role” in Rwandan genocide”

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  4. Any ideas how one might get a copy of “Kangura” from that time period, or a transcript or recording of a broadcast?

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