Trial starts in shooting of Rwandan in S.Africa

June 28, 2011 - 10:45 AM

JOHANNESBURG (AP) — First a gunman shot the exiled Rwandan army general. When he survived, prosecutors say the people who wanted him dead plotted to strangle him in his South African hospital bed.

Prosecutors won't say whether they believe Rwandan President Paul Kagame's government was behind the attack carried out in another corner of the continent.

But on Tuesday as the trial began, prosecutors disclosed that key witnesses are now under special protection in South Africa because they fear the Rwandan government.

Rwandan authorities have angrily denied the allegations of involvement in the June 2010 attack on Lt. Gen. Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa, and have even hired a South African lawyer to monitor the court proceedings this week in Johannesburg.

"The government of Rwanda doesn't have anything to hide. They're not involved in this," their lawyer Gerhard van der Merwe told The Associated Press.

Prosecutor Shaun Abrahams refused to say Tuesday whether his case would implicate the Rwandan government. He said the evidence will speak for itself during the complex trial, which is being conducted in English and translated into three other languages: French, Swahili and Kinyarwanda.

The shooting victim, who has kept a low profile since the June 2010 attack, also faces international war crimes charges linked to the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide — allegations he denies.

Nyamwasa was once Rwanda's military chief before he fell out with the president and went into exile in South Africa last year. He and several other top Kagame aides have since been convicted in absentia on charges that include threatening state security.

Now three Rwandans and three Tanzanians are accused of attempted murder, conspiracy to commit murder and other charges in Nyamwasa's shooting in South Africa. They each pleaded not guilty to the charges Tuesday.

Nyamwasa and other Rwandans living abroad have accused the president of crushing dissent and democracy after he helped to end the 1994 genocide that left more than 500,000 people dead in Rwanda.

In May, British police warned some Rwandan exiles living in the UK that their lives were in danger, and the threat is believed to have emanated from the Rwandan government.

Human rights activists also charged last year that Rwanda's Tutsi-led government was pursuing Hutus in neighboring Uganda. Rwanda's government denied involvement in a series of attacks on Hutu Rwandans in Uganda.

Human rights groups say opposition politicians, journalists and civil society activists have been subjected to crackdowns inside Rwanda as well. Earlier this year, in a case Human Rights Watch said was politically motivated,

Rwanda's High Court sentenced an opposition leader to four years in prison on charges of endangering national security, attempting to organize unauthorized protests and inciting ethnic divisions.

The key suspect in the South Africa case is Pascal Kanyandekwe, a Rwandan businessman. He's also accused of plotting to kill Nyamwasa while the general was hospitalized after the shooting.

Kanyandekwe and four men not linked to the shooting are to stand trial in the hospital plot later this month. He also is accused of bribery after two police officers said he offered them $1 million to let him go when they arrested him in July 2010.

The other two Rwandans accused in the case are Nyamwasa's driver and a former Rwandan soldier, according to prosecutors.

While Nyamwasa portrays himself as a champion of democracy and is a victim in the trial that opened Tuesday, he also faces serious criminal charges.

He and other senior Tutsis are accused of waging an extermination campaign against Hutus in the chaotic aftermath of Rwanda's genocide — charges that Nyamwasa denies.

A Spanish judge in 2008 charged Nyamwasa and 39 other members of the Rwandan military with the mass killings of civilians after they seized power in Rwanda.

A U.N. report last year echoed the 2008 Spanish charges, accusing invading Rwandan troops of killing tens of thousands of Hutus in 1996 and 1997 in neighboring Congo.

South African refugee and human rights groups have gone to court to try to have Nyamwasa's asylum status stripped because of the allegations.

In a lawsuit filed earlier this month, the groups acknowledge it might not be safe for Nyamwasa to return to Rwanda and instead proposed that he be tried in South Africa.