Rwanda war-crimes suspect deported after almost two decades in Canada

12/31/1969 07:00 EST | Updated 03/24/2012 05:12 EDT
MONTREAL - A man accused of crimes related to the Rwanda genocide was deported back there Monday after losing a lengthy legal fight to stay in Canada.

Leon Mugesera was taken to Montreal's Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport by border-services agents and the Rwandan government later confirmed the man had left on a plane bound for Kigali, Rwanda's capital.

He had been living in Canada for nearly two decades and was wanted in Rwanda on charges stemming from the 1994 massacre.

There was a weepy farewell at the airport where a small group of supporters, including his wife, gathered in a tearful huddle. They left without making any statements to the media.

Halfway around the world, however, there were expressions of joy in Rwanda at the idea that Mugesera might finally have to answer for his alleged crimes.

"Leon Mugesera's deportation, while decades past due, is welcome news for a people committed to healing and justice," said a note from the Twitter account of Rwanda's Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo.

"Canada did the right thing."

In another Twitter message, Mushikiwabo later confirmed Mugesera was on his way to Rwanda.

"Leon Mugesera is now airbound for Kigali! Thank ordinary ppl in Canada who saw thru confusion in int'l legal labyrinth and said "he must go.'"

A former Rwandan political operative, Mugesera delivered a fiery anti-Tutsi speech in the leadup to the 1994 genocide. In that 1992 speech, he referred to Tutsis as "cockroaches" and called for their extermination.

Amid a flurry of legal activity, Mugesera lost two judicial battles Monday in provincial and federal courts, paving the way to his expulsion.

A last-ditch attempt at obtaining a deportation stay was rejected by the Federal Court, putting an end to a legal battle that had gone all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada in 2005 and again through various courts in recent weeks.

A federal official said Ottawa was determined to remove Mugesera and would issue a statement if he were deported. But a spokesman for Canada Border Services Agency said later they would not confirm he'd left due to privacy laws.

Mugesera would be among the first Western refugee claimants to be sent back to Rwanda to face charges related to the massacre.

His case is among several following recent rulings by the European Human Rights Court and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, which have ordered the transfer of alleged war criminals.

Mugesera, 59, is accused in Rwanda of inciting genocide and crimes against humanity. His 1992 speech seen as one of the triggers that led to a 100-day massacre of Tutsis and Hutu moderates two years later.

Up to one million Rwandans died during a three-month slaughter.

One expert on Mugesera's file warned that there were still doubts about the ability of the Rwandan justice system to handle his case.

"Because he's one of the first to be sent back and because there is such a passionate debate whether he — or any Rwandan suspect — can get a fair trial, Canada should keep a close eye on what's going on," said Fannie Lafontaine, a law professor at Universite Laval in Quebec City.

But, she added, it's a good thing that Mugesera will finally face charges.

"The only thing that needs to be remembered after this whole legal saga — and whatever the technicalities — is that it's high time that Mr. Mugesera face justice, this is sure," Lafontaine said.

"There's been a legal vacuum for too long and it was time that something be done whether it was here or Rwanda."

Mugesera lost two final attempts to stave off deportation Monday: the one in Federal Court and another earlier in Quebec Superior Court, where a judge ruled that a motion calling for Canada to keep Mugesera here pending a UN investigation was beyond its jurisdiction.

A Montreal law firm argued last week that Canada shouldn't deport him until the United Nations Committee Against Torture examined his claims he would be tortured if deported to Rwanda.

Justice Michel Delorme ruled Monday that Quebec Superior Court wasn't the right forum to rule on a matter that falls under Federal Court jurisdiction. He also added in his judgment that he didn't believe it was necessary for Canada to abide by what he described as a non-binding UN request.

Following the decision, Mugesera's lawyer Martin Andre Roy slammed the federal government for not respecting a UN anti-torture convention Canada has signed.

"They subscribe to a convention and apparently they are allowed to disregard that convention," Roy told reporters.

"We've got to ask ourselves what kind of government we have, knowing that as we speak, according to the courts, the government is allowed to go back on its word."

Federal lawyers have argued that Canadian officials have spent six years evaluating the risk of torture before ultimately deciding in late 2011 to return Mugesera to Rwanda.

Two weeks ago, Mugesera was on the verge of being deported after a 16-year fight to stay in Canada when his lawyers appealed to the UN.