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The Australian driving instructor, the genocide accusations and claims of a Rwandan smear campaign

<span>The wanted: Almost 30 years on from the Rwandan genocide Australia has been asked to ‘prosecute or extradite’ a man now living in Brisbane.</span><span>Illustration: Victoria Hart/Guardian Design</span>
The wanted: Almost 30 years on from the Rwandan genocide Australia has been asked to ‘prosecute or extradite’ a man now living in Brisbane.Illustration: Victoria Hart/Guardian Design

In the frenzied weeks of Rwanda’s savage 1994 Genocide Against the Tutsi, Yoweri Gatarayiha lost 24 members of his extended family. The life he knew destroyed forever by the wholesale slaughter of those he loved.

“I live with pain in my heart,” he tells the Guardian/Four Corners. “I was left with no good life.”

Thirty years on, Gatarayiha waits for the return of a man he claims – and that a self-confessed perpetrator alleges – was part of a mob that attacked and killed one of those family members: his brother, Bizimungu.

For more than a decade that man, Froduald Rukeshangabo, has built a life in Australia.

He lives in a modest bungalow in suburban Brisbane, far from the red-dirt hills of the former Rubona sector in Rwanda’s verdant east, where he is alleged to have played a role in the deadly attacks against local Tutsis.

In footage obtained by the Guardian/Four Corners in Brisbane late last year, Rukeshangabo is seen climbing from a car decorated in the livery of the driving school for which he works. He spends his days helping people obtain their licences.

Dressed in a black zipped jacket, he walks haltingly across a busy road. He has aged from the young man who left Rwanda decades ago.

In 2007 Rukeshangabo was found to have participated in deadly attacks by a Rwandan local community court system known as gacaca, set up as a transitional justice system for alleged crimes committed during the genocide. He did not have legal representation and was sentenced, in absentia, to 30 years in prison.

He declined an interview with the Guardian/Four Corners, saying he was the victim of “false allegations and smear campaigns”. He did not respond to a list of specific questions put to him. Others in the Rwandan diaspora say the allegations are politically motivated.

Related: The wanted: Australia asked to ‘prosecute or extradite’ two men accused by Rwanda of involvement in genocide

Rwanda’s National Public Prosecution Authority has sent an indictment which the Guardian/Four Corners has not seen – to the Australian government and says it is seeking his extradition or prosecution in Australia.

The presence in Australia of at least one man accused of involvement in the genocide has raised questions about the country’s screening process and the willingness of authorities to investigate or prosecute alleged international crimes.

Rwanda experts have told the Guardian/Four Corners extradition is the best response in cases like Rukeshangabo’s if there is sufficient evidence to suggest a trial is necessary. But they warn, too, that evidence from Rwanda’s gacaca system should be treated with caution, that some alleged perpetrators who fled the country might be innocent and should “have their day in court”.

The Guardian/Four Corners do not suggest Rukeshangabo is guilty, only that these serious allegations deserve further investigation by an appropriate authority.

The banana trees grow thickly where Gatarayiha’s brother fell. “The good thing would be for [Rukeshangabo] to face justice,” he tells the Guardian/Four Corners from the site of his former home in Rwanda.

“That would put my heart at peace.”

A savage massacre

Rwanda’s Genocide Against the Tutsi in 1994 was one of the most violent and savage massacres of the 20th century. Its origins lay in the historical divisions between the ethnic groups of the majority Hutu and the minority Tutsi, a schism exacerbated by the country’s colonial rule.

Communal violence and displacement had marred Rwanda for decades. But after the assassination of the Rwandan president, Juvénal Habyarimana, a Hutu, on 6 April 1994, more than half a million men, women and children were killed in just over 100 days, in a planned, state-sponsored genocide waged to exterminate the country’s Tutsi minority, who were blamed for his death.

The violence was chaotic and widespread, but the overwhelming majority of those killed were Tutsi – an estimated two-thirds of Rwanda’s Tutsi population was murdered – and most of the perpetrators were Hutu.

Incited by the central government, the violence spanned the whole nation, but it was locally organised and brutally low-tech: many of the victims were beaten with clubs, or hacked to death with machetes.

While April 1994 marked the start of Rwanda’s brutal genocide, preparations had been made months before.

According to a survivor, Tutsi had been told before the genocide: “your time will come”. Genocidal propaganda on Rwandan radio urged Hutus to eradicate the Tutsi “snakes” and “cockroaches” who were stealing the wealth of the land.

Songs sung at rallies proclaimed “let’s exterminate them”.

A man of authority

In Rwanda, Rukeshangabo was a respected man, according to members of his former community.

Well educated by the standards of rural Rubona, his position as education inspector for the district gave him knowledge of the community, as well as authority.

Amid the nationwide confusion and panic of 7 April 1994 – the day after the president’s assassination – local sources claim that Rukeshangabo attended a meeting of Hutu men in a place known as Rwamagana, a town square of sorts in the village of Gatonde, in the heart of Rubona district.

It is alleged the men were divided into vigilante mobs and sent across the district. The genocide began that night.

Alphonse Hategekimana tells the Guardian/Four Corners that the next morning he walked the short distance from his home to Rwamagana in Gatonde, arriving at about 9am. He remembers feeling apprehensive, but compelled by the mob to attend.

Bearing a length of wood taken from a eucalyptus tree, Hategekimana joined a corps of men he alleges included Rukeshaganbo, who scoured the district for a man called Gilbert. The group accused him of being a spy for Tutsi rebels.

Hategekimana claims Rukeshangabo led the mob that found Gilbert and his father, Deo, and alleges that members of the group beat them to death. He claims that while Rukeshaganbo was part of the group, it was two other men who killed them by beating them with sticks. Gacaca court documents, which the Guardian/Four Corners have obtained, do not mention Rukeshangabo being a leader of the attacks.

Hategekimana claims the mob then walked to a property on a ridgeline on the fringes of the village, seeking a Tutsi called Mwuvaneza, similarly accused of being part of a Tutsi resistance movement. He says Mwuvaneza was not home: his younger brother, Bizimungu, was – but refused to reveal the whereabouts of his sibling.

“Rukeshangabo told me to beat [Bizimungu], and I beat him. I beat him three times with a stick,” Hategekimana claims. Hategekimina alleges Rukeshangabo then “hit him with the stick and he fell down”. Hategekimana claims it was a different member of the group who delivered the blows that killed him.

Hategekimana says he served four years in prison and sought – and received – forgiveness from Bizimungu’s few surviving relatives for his role in his death, including Yoweri Gatarayiha.

Related: More than half a million people killed in 100 days: how the 1994 Rwanda genocide unfolded

Today, they live side-by-side in the same community, in a harmony of sorts, albeit one forever coloured by an unerasable history. To familial events – weddings or the harvest festival of Umungara – Hategekimana is invited, and welcomed.

Forgiveness may be possible, but forgetting is not. Hategekimana bears a lingering sorrow, alongside an abiding sense of inequity.

“[Rukeshangabo’s alleged] actions were bad like ours … So him living [in Australia] … it hurts.”

More than once as he talks to the Guardian/Four Corners, Hategekimana picks up a picture of Rukeshangabo, taken recently in Brisbane, to re-examine it.

“He looks well,” he says.

‘Warrants further investigation’

Reverien Iryaruranga carries a notebook, now battered and coverless, each page covered in his handwritten notes.

He was the secretary of the gacaca court for Rubona, elected by the residents of the district. He took his unpaid task seriously, a commitment to civic unity after the chaos of genocide.

Rwanda’s gacaca courts were a community-level transitional justice system established in the early 2000s, to try the vast number of alleged genocidaires overwhelming Rwanda’s jails and its national court system. Over a decade, more than 12,000 of the community courts – often held under trees, in marketplaces or public squares – tried more than 1m cases.

The courts have faced external criticism over perceived weaknesses in trial procedures. Critics, such as Human Rights Watch, highlight the lack of legal representation for defendants, the potential for corruption or government interference, and the use of hearsay evidence. But other independent international observers have described testimony provided in gacaca as “robust” and the courts as a fair form of public accountability, vital to Rwanda’s recovery and reconciliation from the genocide.

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Dr Nicola Palmer, author of Courts in Conflict: Interpreting the Layers of Justice in Post-Genocide Rwanda and an academic at the King’s College London, told the Guardian/Four Corners that gacaca provided a local reckoning for the violence communities had suffered.

“I think that’s really where gacaca was at its strongest: where it was providing this account of the names of particular individuals who were killed, where their bodies could be found, and a real reckoning with who should be held to account,” Palmer said.

Prof Phil Clark, of Soas University of London (and married to Palmer) has spent a career studying gacaca’s outcomes: he argues, despite international scepticism, the courts were a “robust” form of justice, and played a major role in building a sense of national unity from the chaos of the genocide.

“The … expectation that we would end up with ‘mob justice’ just simply didn’t happen. This was a system that tested evidence, that … was, in some ways, often heavily skewed towards the genocide suspect, because most of the judges … were Hutu, [and] shared an ethnic identity with many of the suspects.”

Clark says, however, that many of those with the means to flee the country after the genocide “have avoided scrutiny completely”.

“If you were a poor peasant farmer accused of genocide crimes on the Rwandan hills, you got prosecuted through gacaca,” Clark says. “But there’s been a completely different process for those who were wealthy enough to escape the country.

Related: ‘They were burying us as if nothing happened’: why Frida Umuhoza speaks about her family’s slaughter

“Many of these individuals undoubtedly are innocent, but they should have their day in court and they should have to answer for the accusations against them.”

Palmer adds: “I think one has to be cautious … around the evidence that is initially presented in the indictment. But I do think it prompts and warrants further investigation.”

The keeper of the records

Iryaruranga says his court heard hundreds of cases, and he has kept his notebooks for more than 15 years since, as if waiting for someone to arrive in his village and ask him for the account. He kept it because it is a record of what happened here, he says quietly.

“It is important to me: the genocide that took place in this country affected many people and it hurts me. That’s why I keep this book.”

During his time as a gacaca lay judge, Iryaruranga remembers – and his notebook records – a number of perpetrators testifying in their own trials to the crimes they alleged they committed alongside Rukeshangabo.

“According to the testimony against [Rukeshangabo], it shows that he was a significant figure,” Iryaruranga alleges.

During Rukeshangabo’s trial – which was held in absentia as he was not in the country – the court heard three full days of evidence, Iryaruranga says.

There were no lawyers in gacaca courts and no one is recorded as having spoken in his defence.

After the hearings, the judging panel of the gacaca court retired to consider their verdict. Iryaruranga says they deliberated for three hours, and returned a unanimous decision in the defendant’s absence: Rukeshangabo was guilty. He was given 30 years, Reverien says, because “he had not admitted to his crimes and he was not around to prove the witnesses wrong”.

He said Rukeshangabo has the right to appeal, and to a fresh trial if he returns to Rwanda.

‘False allegations and smear campaigns’

According to the official record of his gacaca trial, Rukeshangabo was “accused of conspiracy to commit murder, participation in the attacks that killed” at least 10 named people. He was ultimately found guilty of “being well known for murder, dragging dead bodies, and burning them”.

The Guardian/Four Corners found the two-page record in one nondescript box among thousands in the gacaca court archives, tightly secured in a government building in Kigali. The handwritten files, now being digitised, are the only record of Rwanda’s gacaca trials – a first-hand accounting of the country’s brutal history.

Separately, on a court list of fugitive genocidaires from the former Rubona district, held by local authorities, Rukeshangabo is listed: sentenced to 30 years.

More than a decade later – two years after he’d been convicted by gacaca – he was granted a humanitarian visa by Australia, after being referred by the UNHCR. He migrated from east Africa in 2009. The Guardian/Four Corners has not been able to ascertain on what grounds he was granted the visa.

He was made an Australian citizen in 2014.

After several months of correspondence, the Guardian/Four Corners provided Rukeshangabo with a detailed summary of the allegations made against him and invited him to respond.

Rukeshangabo told us he was the victim of “false allegations and smear campaigns” but he did not respond in detail and declined an interview. The Guardian/Four Corners does not make assumptions about his guilt.

Rwanda’s small Australian diaspora is deeply divided. During interviews with community members, some have said that the allegations against Rukeshangabo are politically motivated, or at least, have been raised by the Rwandan government now as a way to silence dissent.

The Rwandan regime has been accused of politicising the genocide, and allegations of genocide are also weaponised against political opponents and dissidents. The Guardian/Four Corners has identified two cases where specific allegations of genocide were made against Rwandan nationals overseas, that were found, after foreign investigations, to be unsubstantiated. Those were cases alleged against national-level political figures.

A spokesperson for the minister for home affairs told the Guardian/Four Corners, “as is longstanding practice we do not comment on individual cases”.

A spokesperson for the attorney general said the department “does not comment publicly on extradition matters”.

Back among the banana trees where so many of his family members died, there is an oppressive sense of loneliness about Gatarayiha: a sorrow that no court, no justice, no punishment, could repair.

“I am just here, with no good life, I just live with pain in my heart,” he says.

“I don’t have anyone.”