Rwandan genocide fugitive may be hiding in NZ

Photographs of victims line the walls of the Kigali Genocide Memorial Museum (Reuters)
Photographs of victims line the walls of the Kigali Genocide Memorial Museum (Reuters)

Rwanda's government says a wanted man accused of crimes against humanity relating to the country's 1994 genocide is living in New Zealand.

The Rwandan National Public Prosecution Authority (NPPA) says Pheneas Nzaramba could be living under an assumed name to evade arrest, but admits he may not even be in the country anymore.

It is not known how long Nzaramba could have been living in New Zealand.

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He faces charges of genocide and extermination in his role in the 1994 atrocity against the Tutsi people - specifically in the Nyakizu area of the country.

A NPPA spokesman said official documents were sent to New Zealand last week, "but these people keep on changing their address".

UK-based political scientist Dr Phil Clark, who specialises in conflict and post-conflict issues in Africa, says the situation is typical of those trying to hide from justice for their part in the massacre of as many as 800,000 Tutsi people.

"It's not surprising that Rwandan genocide suspects would end up living as far away as New Zealand. Many middle- and high-ranking suspects, especially if they were part of the government machinery in 1994, were wealthy and had the means to travel afar."

He says most Western countries wouldn't have been aware of what was happening during and after the genocide, so couldn't vet those who arrived on their shores.

Rwanda commemorated the 20th anniversary of the genocide in 2014 (Getty)
Rwanda commemorated the 20th anniversary of the genocide in 2014 (Getty)

Dr Clark says both governments have been working together for around six years, and they've gathered enough evidence of the whereabouts of suspects, including Nzaramba.

The Ministry of Justice declined to confirm any details from the NPPA, saying it "does not comment on or confirm individual cases until they are before the courts or otherwise in the public domain".  

Amnesty International research and policy manager Carsten Bockemuehl says if the reports are true, both countries need to work together to make sure the accused are brought to justice.

"New Zealand must never be a safe haven for war criminals and mass human rights abusers."

But the New Zealand Government must "tread carefully" when it comes to extradition.

"There is a real risk that criminal suspects would not get a fair trial and their lives could be in danger in Rwanda, which is a repressive state that continues to stifle opposition."

Nzaramba one of three fugitives

But Nzaramba isn't the first genocide fugitive believed to be in New Zealand recently; the NPPA says two others have also been possibly hiding out here.

One of them, Enock Ruhigira, was arrested in Germany in July last year after landing at Frankfurt Airport.

Ruhigira, 65, is currently under house arrest as extradition proceedings are considered, The New Times reports.

Dr Clark says while none of them are "widely known" in Rwanda, they could have held prominent local positions during the genocide years.

The country has been relentless in hunting down genocide fugitives, even having its own government tracking unit. It has prosecuted more than 400,000 suspects in more than 1 million trials over the past 12 years, Dr Clark says.

"The idea, then, that some individuals have escaped this comprehensive justice by fleeing overseas goes against Rwanda's entire push for justice."

NZ not the only refuge of genocide fugitives

But Dr Clark says New Zealand is "hardly alone" as a refuge for suspected genocidaires. They've also turned up in other Western countries with "highly sophisticated intelligence and security structures", including the US, Canada, France, the UK and Australia.

He says the NPPA has found suspects in more than 20 countries, and has led prosecutions in foreign courts, as well as extraditions to Rwanda.

The mass exodus of those allegedly involved in the genocide is akin to what happened following the Holocaust, when Nazi party members fled overseas, he says.

Concentration camp guards are still facing justice, with trials as recently as June 2016.

The genocide

Between April and July 1994, members of the Hutu ethnic majority murdered as many as 800,000 people - mostly of the Tutsi minority.

Along with the deaths, the United Nations says an estimated 150,000 to 250,000 women were also raped.

It started on April 6 with the deaths of the Presidents of Burundi and Rwanda, when the plane they were in was hit in a rocket attack. This incited weeks of severe violence.

In the aftermath, many officials, soldiers, militia and 1.4 million civilians fled to the Democratic Republic of Congo, where thousands died of waterborne diseases.

In November 1994, the United Nations Security Council set up the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, with the first suspects brought before the court in May 1996. 

The court convicted then-Prime Minister Jean Kambanda to life in prison and was also the first international court to convict a suspect for rape as a crime against humanity and of genocide.