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S. Africa: Rwandan general testifies over shooting

- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 20, 2012

An exiled Rwandan general, testifying under oath in South Africa on Wednesday, feared he would be arrested as a political prisoner in his homeland, so he fled to Johannesburg, where he was shot.

Gen. Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa's testimony brought East Africa's fractious politics to South Africa, where he is a witness in the case against three Rwandans and three Tanzanians accused of trying to kill him in Johannesburg in 2010.

Rwandan authorities repeatedly have denied involvement in the shooting and hired South African lawyer Gerhard van der Merwe to monitor proceedings.

Since coming to South Africa in 2010, the former Rwandan military chief has accused Rwandan President Paul Kagame of crushing dissent and trampling democracy after the two worked together to end the 1994 genocide that left more than 500,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus dead in Rwanda.

Rwandans in exile have accused Mr. Kagame of using his agents to hunt down his external foes, and foreign governments have raised similar concerns.

In Rwanda last year, a military court convicted Gen. Nyamwasa and three other dissidents in absentia and sentenced them to 20 years in prison for threatening state security and other charges. They maintain their innocence.

Questions also have been raised about Gen. Nyamwasa's conduct when he was close to Mr. Kagame. Gen. Nyamwasa and other senior Tutsis are accused of waging an extermination campaign against Hutus in the chaotic aftermath of Rwanda's genocide. Gen. Nyamwasa also denies those charges.

Rwanda objects

Soon after Gen. Nyamwasa began testifying, standing in a gray suit and speaking in a soft, steady voice, prosecutor Shaun Abrahams told the court he wanted Gen. Nyamwasa to describe his background.

Mr. Van der Merwe interrupted to say that could lead to speculation about government involvement.

"The consequences in doing that could be severe," Mr. van der Merwe said.

Magistrate Stanley Mkhari dismissed the objections and ordered Mr. van der Merwe to remain a silent observer for rest of the case.

"The government of Rwanda is not a party to the process," Mr. Mkhari said.

Resuming his testimony, Gen. Nyamwasa described being born and raised in a marginalized Rwandan community in Uganda, which borders Rwanda.

He said he earned a law degree from Uganda's prestigious Makere University and joined then-Ugandan opposition leader Yoweri Museveni's rebel movement in the 1980s in part in hopes of improving the lives of Rwandans in Uganda and in Rwanda.

When Mr. Museveni took power, Gen. Nyamwasa rose in the Ugandan army ranks and joined the Rwandan Patriotic Front, founded in Uganda in 1987.

Mr. Kagame has a similar background in Uganda and in the Rwandan Patriotic Front.

He led the Rwandan Patriotic Front to victory in Rwanda in 1994, ending the genocide. Gen. Nyamwasa served in Mr. Kagame's security apparatus, rising to army chief, a post he held from 1998 to 2001, when he left to study global security in Britain.

When he returned, he was appointed national security coordinator and later ambassador to India.

In court Wednesday, as his wife and other supporters watched from the gallery, Gen. Nyamwasa described returning from India for his mother's funeral and to attend a governing party meeting in 2010.

"The purpose of the meeting was to harass me," he said.

Flight to South Africa

He claimed he was accused of defying party discipline for actions that in some cases dated back years.

His defiance included opposing moves against Hutu politicians who had joined the post-genocide government.

Gen. Nyamwasa said Wednesday that he saw attacks on those politicians as undermining unity and reconciliation.

He was asked to write a letter of apology, but he said he knew that such letters had been used to discredit others. Sometimes the letters were presented as evidence in court cases that resulted in jail terms.

"I recognized, first of all, that I would be arrested, and that after the arrest, I would not be granted due process of law," he said in court Wednesday.

He told party officials he would write the letter and present it to Mr. Kagame the next day, but, he added, he never intended to write the letter.

"I left the country and fled," he said.

He arrived in South Africa days after the meeting, joining other dissidents.

Observers speculate Mr. Kagame saw Gen. Nyamwasa as a political rival who was becoming too powerful.

Working with other dissidents in South Africa and elsewhere, Gen. Nyamwasa established the Rwandan National Congress, which they say is dedicated to pursuing peaceful political change in their homeland.

Three Rwandans, among them a prominent businessman, and three Tanzanians face charges including attempted murder and conspiracy to commit murder in the shooting of Gen. Nyamwasa.

They pleaded not guilty, but evidence presented earlier this week included confessions and other incriminating statements that three of the defendants made to police.

The defendants told police they did not know who ordered the attack on Gen. Nyamwasa, but they said they were approached by a Rwandan they could not identify.

South African prosecutors have said key witnesses in the politically and diplomatically sensitive trial have sought police protection in South Africa because they fear Rwanda's government.

Previous testimony in the South African trial has hinted that shadowy figures were determined to kill Gen. Nyamwasa, trying more than once and offering large amounts of cash to draw in conspirators.

Last year, British police warned some Rwandan exiles living in Britain that their lives were in danger. The threat was believed to have originated with the Rwandan government.

In Sweden earlier this year, a person close to the Swedish government told the Associated Press that a Rwandan diplomat had been expelled because he was spying on refugees.

Last year, after a Rwandan journalist who was a frequent critic of his government was shot and killed in Uganda, Human Rights Watch urged Uganda's government to protect Rwandan dissidents living in Uganda.

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