Let Tanzanians be proud of country’s role in international criminal justice

Tanzania hosted the United Nations Detention Facility, under the jurisdiction of the UN Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, for 27 years. PHOTO | COURTESY


  • Tanzania hosted the United Nations Detention Facility, under the jurisdiction of the UN Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, for 27 years

Not so many people are aware that for the first time in the history of the United Nations, the world body, on 26 May 1996, established and began operating a prison facility in the Tanzanian northern city of Arusha.

The United Nations Detention Facility (UNDF) was opened under the jurisdiction of the UN Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR). It lasted a whole 27 years before closing its doors last month, on 28 February 2023, when it was handed over to the Government of the United Republic of Tanzania.

And I should know about this trailblazing institution because I was there, in the ICTR Public Information Department, when the UNDF was established until 2019 when I left the international body. The UNDF had 89 modern high security cells and has over the years housed 93 detainees and prisoners. Located next to the local Arusha Prison, eight kilometers south from City center, the UNDF has over the years achieved unprecedented developments. And I have to admit that Tanzania has all the reasons to be proud of its role in facilitating this international operation and in assisting the UN implement successfully its mission.

Naturally there were a number of issues to be taken into account and sorted out before housing the high level prisoners in an international detention facility. All these were uncharted waters for the UN.

The UNDF opened its gates with the arrival, on 26 May 1996, of its first three detainees - Jean Paul Akayesu, former Mayor of Taba in Gitarama prefecture, Clement Kayishema, a Doctor and Prefect of Kibuye, and Georges Rutaganda, a former Vice - President of the Interahamwe Militia, which spearheaded the genocide of Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994. After which 90 other detainees followed in the cells.

These included former senior cabinet ministers, led by the former Rwanda Prime Minister, Jean Kambanda as well as the only female Minister, Pauline Nyiramasuhuko. There was also a group of high ranking military Commanders, religious leaders, journalists, big businessmen, governors of regions and districts and leaders of the Interahamwe.

Historically the ICTR was established in 1994 by the UN Security Council to bring to justice all those who played a leading role in the commission of crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes in the territory of Rwanda in that year. More than a million people were killed in only 100 days in that year in a country of then about 7 million people.

As stated earlier, establishing and operating an international prison was uncharted waters for the UN. But It had to be done. As my friend and fellow journalist Balthazer Nduwayezu, who has covered the ICTR for local and international media for more than two decades, writes in the Justiceinfo.net that apart from the neat and modern high security cells and fresh and nutritious cuisine prepared by culinary experts, the UNDF established worshipping facilities.

Religious leaders paid for by the Facility began conducting prayers for the detainees in 2015. There were facilities for mass for the Catholics, the Anglicans, the Adventists and prayers for the Muslims

One of the detainees, a former soldier, Omar Serushago, is quoted by Nduwayezu as saying that one of the detainees, a former President of the ruling MRND party, Mathieu Ngirumpatse, who had been a composer of the Kigali Choir, even led a choir in the prison that made mass very enjoyable. “We had a big choir that could make the angels descend at Christmas and Easter,” joked Serushago.

Apart from the delicious meals and even special diets also available were sporting facilities for  a healthy body. A state of the art gym with all the necessary equipment was set up.

After repeated requests the detainees were also accorded conjugal visits, beginning May 2008. A room was set up and each detainee - sans singles - was entitled to three hours of visits with his or her spouse every three months.

Saidou Guindo, then Commandant of the Facility is quoted explaining that nothing prohibits conjugal visits at the international level. For convicted prisoners, he added, it is the prisoner who is punished, not his wife. For detainees there is always the presumption of innocence, he explained.

The UNDF also offered Swahili and Englush language classes. And naturally sometimes there were hunger strikes. But these were not about living conditions but about what it’s inmates felt were denials of justice in the conduct of their trials.

“With gratitude from the United Nations for the partnership with the Government of the United Republic of Tanzania for the use of this detention facility - 20 May 1996 to 28 February 2023” now reads the plague erected at the facility. All this was done in the spirit of promoting and conducting international criminal justice.

It goes without saying that all Tanzanians should be proud of the role their country played in this noble process. I rest my case.