Last week, we witnessed, through media accounts, the sudden change of heart of the Zimbabwean government, regarding the continued hunt for one of the most wanted Rwandan Genocide fugitives, Protais Mpiranya.
As recent as April this year, the Zimbabwean government categorically denied the possible presence of Mpiranya on the country’s soil, despite persistent assertions by the Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, Bubacar Jallow that the suspect was in the southern African country.
Mpiranya, who held the rank of a major during former President Juvenal Habyarimana’s regime, was the overall commander of the notorious elite Presidential Guard.
He is personally responsible for the death of top politicians at the beginning of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.
The Presidential Guard personnel played a critical role in the subsequent Genocide that claimed the lives of over a million people.
It is widely believed that the power sharing deal, to which Habyarimana had acquiesced, was not welcomed by some of the extremists within the government and the military, including the then power broker, Col Theoneste Bagosora, and the likes of Mpiranya, who was equally influential.
Various expert reports have therefore accused the same clique of masterminding the shooting down of a plane carrying Habyarimana on April 6 over the skies of Kigali International Airport, in Kanombe.
For about a decade, Mpiranya was said to be living in Zimbabwe, from where he reportedly coordinated his business empire that is said to also stretch to other countries in that region, including Zambia.
In April this, year, following calls by the ICTR and Interpol for Zimbabwe to cooperate in order to arrest the man, who has a $5million bounty on his head courtesy of the Reward for Justice Programme, a Zimbabwean immigration official told a parliamentary committee that Mpiranya was not in the country.
The Reward for Justice Programme, which is sponsored by the US State Department, features some of the most wanted persons in the world.
“Yes, this has been topical in the local and international media. All efforts have been made to check on this allegation. We have no record within our systems of this person whether on a permit or refugee. The only refugee camp we have is Tongogara and everyone there is documented,” Zimbabwe’s Immigration Principal Director Clemence Masango told parliamentarians.
However, last week, Zimbabwe’s top police officer attached to the CID, Chief Superintendent Peter Magwenzi, acknowledged that they had information that the man was in the country and was using different assumed names like Theophase Mahuku and James Kakule to evade arrest.
Information from Zimbabwe indicates that ‘wanted’ posters of the fugitive have been put up at most police stations in Harare encouraging citizens to assist police to arrest him.
“The United States is offering that reward and if he is in the country, we are also looking for him since we have been approached to assist with the investigations,” said a senior police officer from Zimbabwe.
Mpiranya’s links to Zimbabwe, according to sources, are traced back to the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the early years of last decade, where Zimbabwean forces were fighting alongside the DRC government.
Following the withdrawal of the Zimbabwean forces, Mpiranya, who is said to have already amassed wealth, is believed to have left along with them, and this is when he started freely building his empire, reportedly with the protection of some senior officers within the country’s top brass.
“I think (it is) because Zimbabwe no longer has any interests in the Congo which renders this guy useless. Also, Zimbabwe wants to mend fences with the international community,” says a Zimbabwean journalist who requested anonymity to be able to speak freely about the matter.
The third reason advanced by the journalist, who has closely followed the Mpiranya issue, is the waning old guard within the Zimbabwean military.
“The Zimbabwe army commanders he worked with during the Congo war are now retired and have little influence on current affairs. Some have since died. So he has no one really to protect him. His only source of protection could be his money,” the journalist added.
Police sources from Zimbabwe say that besides southern African countries, Mpiranya’s business interests stretches all the way to Europe. It is believed that he frequently crosses the Zimbabwe-Zambia border to conduct his business operations.
It is not the first time a southern African country is said to be harbouring a Genocide fugitive normally operating a thriving business.
In 2009, a report by African Rights, a pressure group, tracked one Vincent Nzigiyimfura, who had since changed his name to Vincent Nzigiye, to the Malawian capital Lilongwe where he was freely operating his businesses, despite the atrocities he stood accused of in his home area in the then Butare Prefecture.
Also the Genocide Fugitives’ Tracking Unit within the National Public Prosecuting Authority, has previously linked several of the over 100 indicted fugitives to countries in the region and many of them have used their business connections to coordinate the activities of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, a militia group operating in the DRC.
A subject of indictment by the ICTR, Mpiranya remains one of the nine fugitives indicted by the tribunal but still at large, at least 17 years after the court was set up by the United Nations.
The tribunal, which had been agitating to try what they call the ‘big fish’ (including Mpiranya, former businessman Felicien Kabuga, the chief financier of the Genocide, and former Defence Minister Augustin Bizimana), is currently winding up its business.
The last suspect in the Tanzania based court’s custody has been referred for trial in Rwandan courts, as part of its completion strategy, but the decision, which was rendered by the Referral Chamber, is currently been appealed against at the Appeals Chamber.
The court has already sent to Rwanda one suspect in their custody-Jean Bosco Uwikindi, and transferred indictments of at least four fugitives on its wanted list.
A source from the ICTR, however, says that the International Residual Mechanism, which started operating in July this year, has nine contractual judges, who may be called upon in case one or all the three ‘big fish’ are arrested.
The mechanism has a mandate of four years, which may be subject to renewal by the United Nations Security Council.
The renewed hunt for Mpiranya comes just months after a lengthy documentary produced by NTV, a Kenyan television, linked Kabuga to Kenya, where it was alleged that he, at some point, posed as a security operative to receive medical attention.
The Kenyan government has vehemently denied allegations that Kabuga, who is believed to have remained wealthy even after the Genocide, was to some extent being assisted by some government officials to evade justice for nearly two decades now.
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