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First Trial Held In Slaughter Of Half A Million Rwandans Spectators Jeer As Hospital Aide Denies Role In Killings

Sat., Dec. 28, 1996

A former hospital aide in a pink prison uniform became the first person to be tried in connection with Rwanda’s 1994 bloodbath Friday. To the jeers of hundreds of spectators, he denied witnesses’ accounts of his participation in the slaughter.

Deo Bizimana is accused of killing 20 people and ordering the massacres of thousands more in the genocide orchestrated by the country’s former Hutu-led government. Half a million people were killed, most of them ethnic Tutsis.

Efforts to rebuild the country’s crippled justice system and craft legislation to prosecute 85,000 suspects took two and a half years. Testimony in Bizimana’s trial took 4-1/2 hours.

About 500 people attended the trial in a makeshift courtroom in Kibungo, about 40 miles southeast of the capital, Kigali. They cheered when the judges entered, and jeered the defendant, who now awaits a verdict.

One by one, seven witnesses made brief statements to the three-judge panel.

“Bizimana broke into my house and killed my family, and he thought he had killed me,” said Eugene Ndongozi, who bore machete scars on his head. “I used to be a rich man, but now I have nothing.”

The defendant responded: “If he really saw me and I saw him, then I would have killed him, so it is not true.”

One of 1,946 people the current Tutsi-led government considers to have led and organized the massacres, Bizimana could get the death penalty and cannot plea-bargain.

More than 85,000 others are crammed into Rwandan prisons awaiting trial for lesser genocide-related crimes. More trials are expected to begin throughout Rwanda on Monday.

The Rwandan government trials are seen as crucial to ending the cycle of impunity that allowed politically motivated slayings of both Tutsis and Hutus to go unpunished for generations, setting the stage for the 1994 genocide.

Bizimana was charged with 11 crimes ranging from organizing a genocide to unlawfully discharging an assault rifle and a grenade.

Bizimana said he had only been a member of the ruling party that organized the genocide, not a participant in it.

“They have no detailed information about what they say I did,” said Bizimana, who represented himself because no attorney could be found to defend him.

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