The trial of six men accused of trying to kill a prominent Rwandan dissident who found a haven in South Africa has barely begun, and already it has raised diplomatic concerns over Rwanda's alleged involvement in a crime outside its borders.
Since it started Tuesday with testimony evocative of a movie thriller, the trial over the June 2010 shooting attempt on Lt. Gen. Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa has raised big questions.
The government of President Paul Kagame, accused of violating human and democratic rights, has repeatedly denied having anything to do with the shooting that wounded Nyamwasa, a complex figure who has been accused of wartime atrocities and was once close to Kagame.
A second, related trial expected to begin July 25 may offer more revelations in a case that presents a delicate diplomatic challenge for South Africa.
And not just South Africa, said Jennifer Cooke, director of Africa programs at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a U.S. think tank.
"If this allegation is true, I think they (Rwandan officials) will find there is a limit to what the international community will stand for," Cooke said.
The United States and Britain are key allies of Rwanda that have supported Kagame as the leader who helped bring an end to his country's genocide and has since transformed it into an economic success story. Cooke said support for Kagame already appears to be fraying. She noted British police warned some Rwandan exiles living in the U.K. that their lives were in danger, and the threat is believed to have emanated from the Rwandan government.
"The fact is that these kinds of allegations are mounting," Cooke said.
Clayson Monyela, spokesman for South Africa's foreign affairs ministry, said he could not comment on a pending court case. Monyela confirmed, though, that South Africa's ambassador to Rwanda has not returned since he was recalled "for consultations" in August.
The trial has been stalled by inadequate translation, the judge's brief illness and even a power cut. Before adjourning Friday, only one witness was able to complete his testimony. The prosecution witness, a longtime friend of one of the accused plotters from Rwanda and Tanzania, is in hiding with his wife and three children under police guard because he says he fears Rwanda's government. He testified that his friend told him "Rwandan soldiers" masterminded the plot.
The Rwandan government hired a South African lawyer to observe the proceedings against the six East African suspects.
Nyamwasa is to testify during the next round, scheduled to start in late October. The long break is necessary because it's difficult to coordinate the schedules of several defense teams, the judge and the prosecutor.
In court this past week, two police body guards sat nearby as Kalisa Mubarak, a 36-year-old Rwandan who immigrated to South Africa in 2003, testified in English and Kinyarwanda.
Mubarak said he has known one of the accused, former Rwandan soldier Amani Uriwani, since the two were children. Both ended up in South Africa as adults, and Mubarak said his old friend told him last year he had been recruited to help with a job in Johannesburg by "Rwandan soldiers who are about to do some shooting."
Uriwani said he was offered 10,000 rand (about $1,400) by Rwandan soldiers who had come to South Africa from bases in Europe, and who seemed to have plenty of cash and cars, Mubarak said. He said Uriwani would only say that the target also was a soldier, and that he was charged with finding a car and men to carry out the attack.
Mubarak said he thought of rumors that had been circulating in the Rwandan community that the Rwandan government was behind attacks on dissidents abroad. He also thought of two Rwandans who had found refuge in South Africa: former army chief Nyamwasa and Patrick Karegeya, once Kagame's intelligence chief. Mubarak, who owns a downtown Johannesburg hair salon, said both men had been prominent in news reports from his homeland, and were the subject of heated discussions in his salon.
In a tale reminiscent of a movie, Mubarak, who also is a part-time actor, said he tried unsuccessfully to persuade Uriwani to bring him into the plot so he could secretly warn the intended victim. Then, on June 19, 2010, Mubarak heard from a friend about Nyamwasa's shooting in Johannesburg a day earlier.
Frightened, Mubarak called Uriwani and told him he was going to the police. The two arranged to meet at Mubarak's salon. Instead, Mubarak arrived at his home to find Uriwani's small truck parked outside. A panicked Mubarak fled Johannesburg to Durban by train and then by bus to Cape Town, not even telling his pregnant wife of his plans.
As his bus neared Cape Town two days after the shooting, Mubarak said police called him. Another friend in whom Mubarak had confided had gone to police, and taken them to the salon in search of Mubarak. Mubarak called Uriwani and told him he wanted to meet at his salon. Uriwani went, and was arrested.
Later that day, five armed men showed up at the salon, Mubarak testified. He begged for protection from police, but received it only in January, after what he described as a threatening call from Uriwani, who was then in jail.
Mubarak said Uriwani accused him of causing trouble for Uriwani's family and for "the government of Rwanda."
Nyamwasa and other Rwandans living abroad have accused President Kagame of crushing dissent and democracy after he helped to end the 1994 genocide during which extremist Hutus killed more than 500,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus in Rwanda. Cooke, of the U.S. think tank, said Kagame may be especially sensitive to criticism from former insiders _ men who may know his dark secrets.
Nyamwasa and other senior Tutsis have been accused of waging an extermination campaign against Hutus in the chaotic aftermath of Rwanda's genocide _ charges Nyamwasa denies. In addition, a French judge in 2006 issued international arrest warrants for Nyamwasa and eight other Rwandan officials he suspects plotted the downing of then-President Juvenal Habyarimana's airplane on April 6, 1994, a killing that triggered the genocide.
(This version corrects that Cooke is director of think tank's Africa programs.)