A Rwandan fugitive wanted for his role in the 1994 genocide against the country’s Tutsi population has been arrested in South Africa, according to the UN tribunal leading efforts to hunt down the remaining figures accused of instigating the mass killings.

Fulgence Kayishema was detained in the western town of Paarl, not far from Cape Town, almost three decades after he allegedly organised the killing of more than 2,000 refugees inside a church during the genocide, the court said on Thursday.

The joint operation between South African police and a UN team is another boost for the international manhunt to track down Africa’s most wanted men and seek closure for victims of the genocide, after some important successes in recent years.

“Fulgence Kayishema was a fugitive for more than 20 years. His arrest ensures that he will finally face justice for his alleged crimes . . . justice will be done, no matter how long it takes,” Serge Brammertz, the tribunal’s chief prosecutor, said.

Fulgence Kayishema
Fulgence Kayishema is accused of overseeing the burning and bulldozing of the Nyange church by militiamen in April 1994 © U.S. State Department via Reuters

The tracking-down of Kayishema follows the arrest in 2020 of Felicien Kabuga, an alleged financier of the killings who is due to go on trial in The Hague. The tribunal said last year that Protais Mpiranya, who led Rwanda’s presidential guard during the genocide, died in Zimbabwe after he sought refuge there. Kayishema’s arrest leaves three fugitives indicted by the tribunal still at large.

His capture highlights how the closing stages of the hunt for the genocide’s last suspects has come to depend on local law enforcement in the African countries where most are believed to have fled undercover.

In 2021 Brammertz criticised South African President Cyril Ramaphosa’s government for “among the most severe instances of non-cooperation my office has faced” given signs that Kayishema was hiding in the country. Ramaphosa’s government pledged better co-ordination in response. 

Brammertz on Thursday praised the “exceptional skills, rigour and co-operation” of the South African authorities and the “essential assistance” of Rwandan president Paul Kagame’s government.

“Kayishema’s arrest demonstrates yet again that justice can be secured, no matter the challenges, through direct co-operation between international and national law enforcement agencies,” Brammertz said.

South Africa has also been under pressure to demonstrate co-operation in international legal matters since a global task force this year placed it on a so-called grey list of nations missing the mark on fighting financial crime. 

The country has struggled to rebuild police and prosecutorial expertise that was hollowed out under Jacob Zuma, the former president.

Kayishema oversaw the burning and bulldozing of the Nyange church by militiamen in April 1994, according to his international indictment. He will be tried in Rwanda, after his case was referred to the country in 2012.

Before it closed in 2015, the former international crimes tribunal for Rwanda indicted nearly 100 suspects and convicted dozens. Its cases were transferred to the “residual mechanism” that is being led by Brammertz.

More than 800,000 ethnic Tutsi and moderate Hutus were killed in 1994 before the slaughter was halted by a rebel army led by Kagame. Many suspected genocidaires fled and spent years on the run from Rwandan authorities and UN prosecutors.

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