Friday, 15 December 2006

Journalist accuses former Burundi president over papal nuncio murder

A Burundian journalist now in hiding in South Africa has accused a former president and other high ranking officials of the central African nation of masterminding the 2003 assassination of Holy See nuncio, Archbishop Michael Courtney.

Archbishop Courtney, an Irish Vatican diplomat, was ambushed and shot several times 40 kilometres from the nation's capital, Bujumbura, as he was travelling south by car to an area that was a stronghold of rebels from the National Liberation Forces, who were accused of carrying out the attack, Catholic News Service reports.

The Archbishop - whose term as nuncio was about to end when he was killed - died on 29 December 2003 during emergency surgery at a nearby hospital.

The National Liberation Forces always denied government allegations that they had carried out the attack, and the rebels blamed government forces for the killing.

According to CNS, the South African national weekly The Southern Cross, has now obtained a summary of a 30-page dossier on the killing by a Burundian investigative journalist currently hiding in southern Africa.

The journalist, whose name was not revealed for safety reasons, said his knowledge of what he believes to be the true circumstances of Archbishop Courtney's death has led directly and indirectly to the deaths of several members of his own family - his wife, son, father, brother and sister.

The report claimed Archbishop Courtney had information concerning the murder of Dr Kassy Manlan, the World Health Organisation (WHO) representative in Burundi, who was assassinated while investigating the alleged embezzlement of European Union funds by Burundi's then-President Pierre Buyoya and his wife.

According to the dossier, Manlan was murdered as he was about to fly to Brussels, where he was expected to discuss the matter with EU officials.

The journalist claimed he had learned that when he was killed Archbishop Courtney was also about to travel to Brussels to present the doctor's report, which had landed in his hands, to the European Union.

"I later got confirmation from the office of one of the country's bishops that the apostolic nuncio had just received the (WHO) report," the journalist said.

"It was not clear who gave him the report. What is known is that he discussed the matter the day before he was killed with the president of the (Burundian) bishops' conference."

The journalist said he became suspicious about the circumstances of Archbishop Courtney's death after speaking to the chief surgeon who had operated on the prelate.

The doctor had observed that the position of the bullet wounds suggested Archbishop Courtney had been shot at close range. The official statement on the death said the car in which the nuncio was travelling did not stop after the shooting took place.

The journalist said Burundian rebels captured him as he was investigating the crime scene. His position as a journalist, he said, saved him from being killed and gave his captors a chance to deny they were involved in the nuncio's killing.

Two days after the journalist was released in January 2004, he received a call from army Captain Edward Nahayo, his cousin, who was in hiding from the authorities at the time. Nahayo had been part of Buyoya's presidential guard until April 2003 when Buyoya handed over power to his successor, Domitien Ndayizeye.

According to the journalist, Nahayo said he had headed up the team of five that carried out Archbishop Courtney's assassination.

The dossier mentions four other soldiers, all but one of whom were subsequently killed. The journalist believes they were targeted by the secret services for their knowledge of the archbishop's assassination.

The phone call also revealed that meetings to plan the nuncio's killing were allegedly chaired by top-ranking leaders in state intelligence, the president's office and the ruling party, UPRONA.

The journalist said he was detained while preparing a report on the case before eventually escaping.

Now, after the finalisation of peace agreements between Burundi's warring Tutsi and Hutu groups and an election that has seen former rebel groups win political power, Buyoyo, the former president, is still politically active and serves as a senator, The Southern Cross says.

Rwandan priest gets 15 years on genocide charges

Also in Africa, weeks after a Rwandan nun was convicted on genocide charges, a Catholic priest has been sentenced to 15 years prison after being found guilty of ordering the 1994 demolition by bulldozers of his church where 2,000 ethnic Tutsi people had sought refuge.

The New York Times reports that according to local officials Fr Athanase Seromba, a Hutu, was the first Roman Catholic priest to be tried before the International Criminal Tribunal based in Arusha, Tanzania.

At least two other Catholic priests await charges in Arusha, according to reports, while three Catholic nuns and a handful of clergy members from other denominations have already been convicted in various courts for their roles in the killing, which led to an estimated 800,000 deaths.

The mass killing began in April 1994 when Hutu extremists mobilised the majority population in the tiny central African country to root out and kill Tutsi and moderate Hutu.

Some of the most gruesome attacks in what is an overwhelmingly Catholic country took place in churches and missions, where members of the clergy committed acts of heroism but also of shame.

The Vatican has suggested in the past that it is unfairly being made a target over the killings which involved many people and groups in Rwanda.

The Tutsi hiding at Fr Seromba's church on 12 April 1994, in Nyange, a village in western Rwanda, managed to repel the first attackers, according to testimony. But members of the so-called Interahamwe militia, joined by Rwandan soldiers, threw grenades at the church and secured the assistance of Fr Seromba.

He identified the weakest parts of his church as targets for the bulldozer drivers, a panel of judges found. He also later encouraged the fighters who charged the church to finish off any survivors, to whom he referred as cockroaches, according to testimony.

After the massacre, Fr Seromba fled Rwanda, changed his name to Anastasio Sumba Bura and worked as a priest in two parishes near Florence, Italy. He surrendered to the tribunal on 6 February 2002 and pleaded not guilty to the charges against him.

The judges said the 15-year sentence for Fr Seromba reflected aggravating factors such as his authority as a Catholic priest and the trust he had from those seeking shelter in his parish.