By Graham Holliday
KIGALI (Reuters) - The Tanzania-based U.N. war crimes tribunal for Rwanda has handed over prosecution material for the first case to be heard in Rwanda, its prosecutor said on Monday, adding that genocide defendants can now get a fair trial in their own country.
Some see the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR)'s action as a vote of confidence in the Rwandan judicial system nearly 18 years after the genocide. Others question the chances of a fair trial in the Central African country still scarred by the slaughter.
"With significant law reform, we've been able finally to convince the judges that the legal framework in this country adequately provides fair trial for any of the accused who is sent over to this country," ICTR prosecutor Hassan Bubacar Jallow told a news conference in the Rwandan capital, Kigali.
The ICTR, plagued by constantly rising costs and excessive bureaucracy, was supposed to conclude all work by the end of 2010, 16 years after it was set up. Its mandate was extended until 2014 to clear a backlog of trials.
The prosecutor said the case of Jean Uwinkindi, a pastor arrested in Uganda in 2010 and indicted for genocide and crimes against humanity, would be heard in Rwanda. Uwinkindi led a group of killers to look for and exterminate Tutsi, in particular Tutsi civilians from Kanzenze commune, the prosecution says.
Previous Rwandan attempts to have the court hand it some of the cases were unsuccessful. Rwanda's parliament scrapped the death penalty for genocide suspects in 2007, and has introduced a number of legal reforms required by the court.
"Our justice system has come of age," Rwanda's Prosecutor General Martin Ngoga said. "For us, this is more than just transferring one case."
"It is opening doors for many other cases to flow in. It is time to bring Rwandan cases home to Rwanda."
Highlighting the concerns about access to a fair trial in Rwanda another genocide suspect, Leon Mugesera, is currently fighting a deportation order in Canada.
The United Nations Committee Against Torture has requested that he not be deported until a group of ten experts has time to review the case.
Carina Tertsakian, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, said the transfer of Uwinkindi's case risked setting a precedent as the ICTR moves to shut down.
"We don't believe that there are guarantees that Rwanda can provide a fair trial," said Tertsakian. "The government of Rwanda does have the ability to influence what goes on in the courts, especially on political or sensitive cases."
During the genocide, some 800,000 members of the minority Tutsi ethnic group and moderate Hutus were butchered in 100 days of killings.
(Editing by Richard Lough)