LONDON (Reuters) - A group of Rwandans accused of taking part in the 1994 genocide appeared in court in London on Wednesday at the start of a second legal battle by four of them to avoid extradition to Kigali.
The five were arrested last Thursday under warrants alleging genocide and related crimes during the 100-day massacre of 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus. They deny the charges.
Emmanuel Nteziryayo, Charles Munyaneza and Celestin Ugirashebuja were all mayors of provincial Rwandan towns in 1994 and are accused of organising massacres.
Vincent Bajinya, who was a medical doctor in Kigali, is accused of inciting genocide during meetings at his house and organising roadblocks where Tutsis were killed.
All four were first arrested in Britain in December 2006 and held in prison until April 2009, when the London High Court freed them on the grounds that they would not receive a fair trial in Rwanda.
A fifth suspect, Celestin Mutabaruka, was not involved in the earlier legal battle. He was the head of an agricultural project at the time of the genocide and faces the same seven charges as the other four.
Prosecutor Gemma Lindfield told the court that the Rwandan legal system had improved since the 2009 High Court ruling, making it more likely that Rwanda’s extradition bid would succeed this time.
Lindfield cited changes in Rwanda’s witness protection system and court decisions in countries including Norway, Sweden and Canada to extradite genocide suspects to Kigali.
“These developments ... represent a sea change in the view of the global community and the international courts,” said Linfield, who was acting for Rwanda during the hearing at Westminster Magistrates’ Court.
The five men, all in their 50s and 60s, appeared by video link from Belmarsh Prison in London. They were remanded in custody until the next court hearing, scheduled for June 27.
Bajinya, Nteziryayo and Munyaneza applied for bail but were denied by judge Emma Arbuthnot on the grounds that they posed a flight risk.
“These are extremely serious charges. It is hard to imagine how they could be more serious,” Arbuthnot said, adding that if extradited and convicted the men could be facing sentences of 25 to 35 years.
The lawyers for the three men argued that they had put down roots in Britain, where they had been living in stable homes with their wives and children for years, and there was no evidence that they would try to flee.
Frank Brazell, Bajinya’s lawyer, said he did not accept that there had been a “sea change” in the Rwandan legal system and cited a number of concerns about the conduct of the Rwandan government.
In particular, he quoted a 2012 human rights report by the U.S. State Department which he said criticised Kigali for harassing journalists and opposition figures, supporting rebel groups in Congo and disregarding the rule of law.
These matters will be dealt with during hearings provisionally scheduled to begin in late October.
The other two suspects did not apply for bail but their lawyers signalled they may do so.
Britain and Rwanda do not have an extradition treaty but signed a memorandum of understanding regarding the five genocide suspects on March 8. Its contents were not disclosed in court.
A previous agreement, signed at the time of the last round of extradition proceedings, stipulated that if convicted the men would not face the death penalty. That was because Britain does not extradite suspects to countries where they risk execution.
The judicial fallout from the Rwandan genocide has been complex and has caused controversy both within the country and abroad.
The 75 most high-profile genocide suspects were tried by a special U.N. tribunal based in Tanzania which has now finished hearing cases. Rwanda tried an estimated 2 million suspects through its “gacaca” system of community courts. It is estimated that 65 percent of those were convicted.
Editing by Andrew Roche