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  • Dr. Richard Quinlan

Leading Figure in 1994 Rwandan Genocide Arrested for Gruesome Crimes

June 1, 2023

[Image source: nternational Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals]

The country of Rwanda became an internationally recognizable nation in 1994 due to a staggering wave of genocidal violence that decimated the country for roughly one hundred days. In just over three months, over 800,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutu were brutally murdered, often with machetes and other primitive weapons, by members of the Hutu majority.[1] Like other nations that have experienced mass atrocities, the stunned public was left asking questions about why the events transpired and larger, more painful questions about how to punish those responsible and how the nation will attempt to move forward. One such significant event happened on May 24, 2023 with the arrest of Fulgence Kayishema. Kayishema was arrested on a grape farm outside of Cape Town, South Africa after more than three decades on the run as he moved from Rwanda to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Tanzania, Mozambique, and finally settled in South Africa under a false name.[2] Similar to Nazi leaders who fled following the end of the Second World War, perpetrators of more recent genocides remain wanted fugitives by the international community.

The Nuremberg Trials established a precedent for political and military leaders to be held accountable for genocidal crimes, a mandate embodied by the formation of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) through United Nations Resolution 955 in 1994.[3] This international court was created to arrest and prosecute those responsible for one hundred days of unimaginable bloodshed and violence in 1994, less than one year following the genocide in Rwanda’s neighboring country, Burundi. Legal proceedings following the Rwandan genocide were particularly difficult, for the nation simply did not have adequate courts to successfully prosecute those who engaged in the violence, as well as a lack of understanding as to how best respect the privacy and humility of women who were victims of horrific sexual abuse. To begin a delicate healing process, Rwanda implemented a vast coalition of local courts called “Gacaca”, which translates to ‘justice on the grass’.[4] These courts gave victims opportunities to expose the horror of those bloody one hundred days and allowed local elders to distribute sentences to those accused of murder, rape, and other crimes associated with the events of 1994. The nation’s report on the Gacaca courts noted that it would take more than a century to try all the detainees with Rwanda’s judicial system.[5] These local courts lacked the legal strength to punish those responsible for the worst of the crimes committed in 1994. The international community, with the weight of the United Nations supporting it, was necessary to finally apprehend a figure as significant as Kayishema.

While his arrest is an event worthy of celebration, Kayishema was formally charged back in 2001 for his crime involving the murder of 2,000 Rwandans. According to court records, Kayishema stands accused of attempting to set the Nyange Church in Kivumu, Kibuye prefecture ablaze on April 15, 1994.[6] Roughly 2,000 refugees hid inside the church, trying to escape the torrent of violence. Kayishema and accomplices attempted to kill those inside by burning the church to the ground. To expedite the killings, the collection of perpetrators bulldozed the church and later piled the bodies together in a mass grave.[7] The actions taken that day are representative of what the world has witnessed in genocides throughout history; not only the killing of individuals but also the desecration of their humanity. The victims killed by the hands of Kayishema and others that day, including a massive number of women and children, were viewed as “the other” and regarded as less than human. For years prior to the genocide, anti-Tutsi propaganda spread by Hutu against their neighbors has been well documented, from radio stations naming where Tutsi and moderate Hutu lived, to newspapers printing articles about the evils of intermarriage between the two groups, as well as even labeling the Hutu as “the Jews of Rwanda” who would be destroyed by “Nazi Tutsis”, illustrating a terrifying commonality with the Holocaust.[8] The arrest and eventual prosecution of Kayishema is a significant victory for international justice carried out by an alert from Interpol and the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals (MICT), as the ICTR officially disbanded in 2015.[9] One can hope that Kayishema’s arrest will also bring about a level of healing for the relatives of those living still with the memories of the genocide; however, even when appearing in court, the war criminal did not admit to any wrongdoing.

Rwandan genocide suspect Fulgence Kayishema holds up a Christian book, as he appears in the Cape Town Magistrates Court, in Cape Town, South Africa May 26, 2023. [Image credit: Reuters]

On May 26th, Kayishema walked into a South African courtroom holding a bible with the phrase “Jesus First” adorning the book’s bright blue cover. Kayishema’s crimes were particularly repugnant, yet he appears to be unrepentant regarding his actions. When asked to offer any statement to the families of his victims, the former police inspector said, “What can I say? We are sorry to hear what was happening. It was a war at that time. … I didn’t have any role.”[10] While the answer is indeed frustrating, the significance of Kayishema’s arrest should not be muted. He is slated to be tried in Rwanda, and his trial may lead to more information about the genocide to become public. Even nearly thirty years after the killing stopped, there is much still to learn about the slaughter that ravaged this small nation. Every arrest and successful prosecution of any individual complicit with genocide is a global victory for justice. It is imperative that the world pays careful attention to the trial and sentencing of Kayishema. International legal and peacekeeping bodies from NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) to the UN to the ICC (International Criminal Court) have faced recent criticisms for being antiquated, ineffective, or both; bringing Fulgence Kayishema to justice and holding him accountable for his crimes will demonstrate both the need and impact of these organizations. The arrest of a monster does not heal the wounds of genocide, but those responsible for committing acts of horrific inhumanity must ultimately be held accountable for their actions if the lessons of such tragedies are to be fully learned.



[1] Corey, Allison, and Sandra F. Joireman. "Retributive Justice: The Gacaca Courts in Rwanda." African Affairs 103, no. 410 (2004): 73-89.

[2] “Rwandan genocide suspect Fulgence Kayishema in South Africa court”. Accessed 5/27/23

[3] Scharf, Michael P. “Statute of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda” Accessed 5/26/23

[4] Corey, Allison, and Sandra F. Joireman. "Retributive Justice: The Gacaca Courts in Rwanda." African Affairs 103, no. 410 (2004): 73-89.

[5] Republic of Rwanda: National Service of Gacaca Courts June 2012

[6] “Fulgence Kayishema: Rwandan accused of killing 2,000 in church arrested”. Accessed 5/28/23

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] “Rwandan genocide suspect Fulgence Kayishema in South Africa court”. Accessed 5/27/23


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