Biography and recent events

Karenzi Karake is the Director-General of the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) in Rwanda. A close and trusted ally of President Paul Kagame, he is a long-standing senior member of the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), which took power when it overthrew the Hutu-led government responsible for the 1994 genocide. He is also a former deputy chief of the UN-African Union peacekeeping force in Darfur, western Sudan.

On 20 June 2015, Karake was arrested at Heathrow airport, as he prepared to fly back to Rwanda, under a European Arrest Warrant following a request issued by a Spanish judge based on a 2008 indictment against 40 senior RPF members in connection with war crimes allegedly committed by the RPF in Rwanda between 1990 and 2000 – in Karake’s case this includes the killing of three Spanish aid workers working for Medicos del Mundo in 1997. Legal proceedings have begun to extradite Karake to Spain so that he can stand trial there for these alleged crimes.

According to several British media outlets, including the BBC’s Newsnight, Karake had come to the UK for meetings, one of which was with the head of MI6, Alex Younger. There is speculation that a scheduled meeting with Younger was cancelled at or close to the last minute after MI6 learned of Karake’s imminent arrest. Senior Rwandan officials have suggested that this is correct.

On 25 June 2015, Karake was granted bail by the Magistrates Court on a bond of £1 million. An initial extradition hearing has reportedly been set for 26 September, with the full extradition hearing expected on 29-30 October. He must remain within the M25 in the UK at least until then.

Universal jurisdiction

The Spanish judge is acting under the principle of universal jurisdiction, a principle which originates in the 1949 Geneva Conventions but which also features in other international human rights treaties – for example, the Convention against Torture.

In each of the four Conventions, there is an article that says that a state party is obliged to search for persons alleged to have committed or ordered war crimes and try them in its own courts. These articles also permit a state party to hand such persons over to another states party for trial, in accordance with the provisions of its own legislation.

The majority of UN member states provide for some kind of universal jurisdiction in their national laws but few in practice have exercised it. Spain has been relatively active. You will recall that in 1988, another Spanish judge tried but failed to secure the extradition of Chilean ex-dictator Augusto Pinochet from London in 1988. However, in 2014 the present Spanish Government reformed its domestic law to limit the ability of judges to prosecute crimes committed outside Spain. Some take the view that this could complicate efforts to prosecute Karake if he is eventually extradited to Spain.


The Rwandan government forcefully condemned Karake’s arrest. The African Union called for his immediate unconditional release and described his arrest as an “attack on Africa”, undermining the sovereignty of African legal systems. In recent years many African governments have become increasingly sceptical about international justice mechanisms, including the International Criminal Court.

Opponents of Karake’s arrest have used a range of arguments to justify their view that it was unjustified:

  • The strength of the evidence to back up the European Arrest Warrant has been questioned, including by legal observers cited in leaked US government documents. A diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks described the indictments against the 40 senior RPF figures as “a bloated political tract, sloppily organised and endlessly repetitive”.
  • The Rwandan Government and others have gone so far as to say that the case is politically motivated. The AU has said as much, as has former UK cabinet minister Andrew Mitchell, Andrew Mitchell has joined others in arguing that that the Spanish judge involved is junior and has links with supporters of those who perpetrated the Rwandan genocide;
  • Interpol has to date not issued a Red Notice against Karake (or any of the 39 other people indicted by the Spanish judge), which suggests that it views the case with some scepticism;
  • There has been speculation that the arrest was prompted by an ‘over-zealous’ UK border official.

Human rights groups have responded to events by calling for due process to be followed and for Karake to receive a fair trial.

Human Rights Watch has taken a particularly active stance on the issue, asserting that it believes that “the 2008 Spanish indictment […] has some merit”. In an opinion piece, one of its senior staffers set out the organisation’s view:

“The 1994 genocide in Rwanda in which more than half-a-million people were systematically slaughtered was a cataclysmic event.

The vast majority of the victims were Tutsi, targeted solely because of their ethnicity. The RPF overthrew the interim government and its army who had perpetrated the genocide, and is rightly hailed by many Rwandans for ending the genocide. But the story does not end there.

In the weeks and months after the genocide, RPF troops killed thousands of unarmed Hutu civilians who they believed had participated in the genocide. These killings by the RPF were systematic and widespread, and commanding officers, including Karenzi Karake, must at least have been aware of them.

In the years that followed, under the new government formed by the RPF, soldiers of the Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA) killed many more civilians, particularly during a counterinsurgency operation in northwestern Rwanda in 1997 and 1998. When the RPA invaded Congo in 1996, its soldiers went a step further, indiscriminately massacring not only Rwandan Hutu refugees but also Congolese Hutu civilians who had nothing to do with the genocide.

The extent of the crimes committed in Congo was revealed in a detailed 2010 United Nations report, which found that the Rwandan army and its Congolese rebel allies had “carried out a relentless pursuit and mass killing of Hutu refugees” in 1996 and 1997; the majority of victims were women, children, the elderly, or the sick. The report concluded that the attacks constituted crimes against humanity.

Throughout this period, Karenzi Karake held senior positions in the military and intelligence services.”

An academic expert on Rwanda, Phil Clark, has speculated that the decision of the Metropolitan Police to arrest Karake – somebody who has travelled to and from the UK before on numerous occasions without hindrance – may indicate that new evidence in the case against him has come to light.

Clark has also argued that, if the evidence is weak, the forthcoming extradition hearings may be an opportunity to challenge it. He and others have noted that another senior RPF figure, Rose Kabuye, was extradited from Germany to France in 2008 in connection with allegations that she had played a role in the 1994 plane crash that killed the then Hutu president Juvenal Habyarimana, but she was ultimately released without facing trial and allowed to return to Rwanda.

UK-Rwandan relations

Rwanda is widely hailed a development ‘success-story’. Fewer would describe it as a democratic ‘success-story’.

The UK is a major bilateral aid donor to Rwanda. In 2012, the UK twice suspended some of its aid to Rwanda as a result of concerns about the country’s role in neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo, eventually ‘reprogramming’ the funds in 2013 so that they no longer counted as general budget support to the Rwandan government. Rwanda joined the Commonwealth in 2009.

The UK Government has not commented on merits or otherwise of the Karake case. Following his arrest, the British High Commission in Kigali issued a statement confirming that Karake had been arrested while reiterating its continuing commitment to a “strong and effective aid partnership” and close cooperation on a “growing range of regional and international issues.”

Some have claimed that UK-Rwandan relations were already strained as a result of a controversial BBC programme, “Rwanda’s untold story”, broadcast in October 2014. Amongst other things, the programme addressed claims that the US and the UK had shielded senior RPF officials, including President Kagame, from prosecution by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR). On 16 July, the BBC broadcast another programme, “Rwanda: has Britain been beguiled?”, about past and present UK-Rwandan relations.

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