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The Prosecutor v. Athanase Seromba

Court International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (Trial Chamber III), Tanzania
Case number ICTR-2001-66-I
Decision title Judgement
Decision date 13 December 2006
  • The Prosecutor
  • Athanase Seromba
Categories Crimes against humanity, Genocide
Keywords crimes against humanity, ethnic group, extermination, genocide, intent to destroy, kill, serious bodily or mental harm, widespread or systematic attack
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During the Rwandan genocide Athanase Seromba was a Catholic priest at Nyange parish, Kibuye Prefecture. On 13 December 2006, Trial Chamber III of the ICTR convicted him of aiding and abetting genocide against Tutsi refugees who had sought refuge at Nyange parish in order to escape attacks committed against the Tutsis. The Trial Chamber also found that Seromba had assisted in the killing of Tutsi refugees as well as in the commission of acts causing serious bodily or mental harm. Thus, the Chamber convicted him of aiding and abetting the crimes of genocide and extermination as a crime against humanity and sentenced him to 15 years of imprisonment.

The Trial Chamber considered the Accused’s authority as a respected Catholic priest, the trust he had from several Tutsi refugees who had taken shelter in his parish to elude massacres and his failure to live up to the trust of the refugees who thought their lives would be safe there as aggravating factors. Seromba’s good reputation prior to the events of 1994, his relative youth at the time of the events and his voluntary surrender to the Tribunal were considered mitigating factors. 

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Procedural history

In April 1994, Athanase Seromba was a Catholic priest in Nyange parish, Kivumu community.

In the Indictment dated 8 June 2001, the Prosecutor charged Seromba with four counts: genocide (Count 1), complicity in genocide (Count 2), conspiracy to commit genocide (Count 3) and extermination as a crime against humanity (Count 4).

The Accused had gone into exile in Florence, Italy, and surrendered to the authorities of the Tribunal on 6 February 2002. He made his initial appearance on 8 February 2002 and entered a plea of not guilty. His trial started on 20 September 2004 and ended on 27 June 2006.

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Related developments

The Accused submitted ten grounds of appeal challenging his convictions and his sentence. The Prosecution advanced three grounds of appeal challenging the Accused’s acquittal for planning, ordering, and committing genocide as well as extermination as a crime against humanity, as well as his acquittal for conspiracy to commit genocide.

On 12 March 2008, the Appeals Chamber overturned the conviction of the Accused for aiding and abetting genocide and extermination as a crime against humanity and substituted convictions for committing genocide and extermination as a crime against humanity for his role in the destruction of the church in Nyange Parish causing the death of approximately 1,500 Tutsi refugees sheltering inside. The Chamber increased the Accused’s sentence to life imprisonment. 

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Legally relevant facts

The Trial Chamber dismissed the Defence allegations that the indictment was defective (para. 23).

The Chamber also found that the Prosecution had proved that Witness YATA, Seromba and other persons had participated in a parish council meeting on 10 April 1994 in Nyange parish (para. 66).

The Chamber concluded that the Prosecution had not proved that Seromba had prohibited Tutsi refugees from getting food at the parish (para. 96).

The Trial Chamber found that Seromba had refused to celebrate Mass for Tutsi refugees in Nyange church and that he had dismissed four Tutsi employees from the parish, including a certain Patrice, who was killed by attackers after having been turned back from the parish by Seromba (para. 107).

The Chamber was satisfied that Seromba had encouraged bulldozer driver FE32 to destroy the Nyange church. The destruction of the church resulted in the death of at least 1,500-2,000 refugees who had sought refuge there to flee from the attacks of the assailants (para. 269).

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Core legal questions

  • Whether the indictment against the Accused was defective.
  • Under which mode of liability the Accused could be held criminally responsible for the crimes he had allegedly committed.
  • Whether the Accused was guilty of genocide, complicity in genocide, conspiracy to commit genocide and extermination as a crime against humanity for his conduct during the attacks against Tutsis who had sought refuge in Nyange church in April 1994.
  • Which factors the Trial Chamber should take into consideration upon sentencing.
  • What the appropriate sentence would be, if the Accused was found guilty.

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Specific legal rules and provisions

  • Articles 2(2),(3)(a),(b),(e), 3(b), 6(1), 20 and 23 of the ICTR Statute.
  • Rules 72, 85, 89-98 bis, 101 and 103 of the ICTR Rules of Procedure and Evidence.

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Court's holding and analysis

Relying on its factual findings, the Trial Chamber considered that the Accused could be held responsible only for aiding and abetting the offences for which he might be convicted (para. 311).

The Chamber held that the Accused, by his words and actions on 12, 14, 15 and 16 April 1994, had aided and abetted the commission of murders and causing serious bodily or mental harm to the Tutsis who had sought refuge in Nyange church during the events covered in the indictment(para. 322).

The Chamber dismissed Count 2 since it had been pleaded in the alternative (para. 343).

The Chamber further concluded that the Prosecution had not proved that Seromba had conspired with other persons to commit genocide (Count 3) (para. 351).

The Trial Chamber found that the Prosecutor had not established that Seromba had ordered the closure of the church doors so as to lock up the Tutsi refugees inside Nyange church and expose them to death (para. 363).

The Chamber was satisfied that the Accused had substantially contributed to the destruction of Nyange church and had, thus, aided and abetted the crime of extermination of the Tutsi refugees at Nyange church (paras. 364-366).

After taking into account the gravity of the offences, the individual circumstances of the Accused, as well as the aggravating and mitigating factors, and after granting him credit for the time served, the Chamber sentenced Seromba to fifteen years of imprisonment (Disposition).

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Further analysis

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Instruments cited

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Additional materials