The Registrar of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, Mr. Agwu Ukiwe Okali, on 18 November 1998 visited the United Nations Detention Facilities in Arusha, where suspects and accused persons in the Tribunal's custody are detained before and during their trials.
Mr. Okali met with the detainees and discussed with them in detail the nature and limits of the Tribunal's programme for the assignment of defence counsel to accused persons who could not afford the cost of hiring a lawyer and thus requested ICTR-assigned legal representation at the Tribunal's expense. Several of the detainees had in late October embarked on a hunger strike - which they called off after two days - in solidarity with detainee Jean-Paul Akayesu's own eight-day hunger strike, during which he tried to pressure the Tribunal's Registry to appoint as his defence counsel a lawyer who did not meet the court's criteria. The Tribunal's Registry has maintained its position on Mr. Akayesu's demands. The convict, who was sentenced to life imprisonment for genocide on 2 October 1998 and has appealed against his conviction, ended his protest action on 30 October.
In a two-hour meeting interrupted several times by applause from the detainees, Mr. Okali explained modifications introduced by the Registry in the procedure for assignment of counsel. The detainees, he said, would now have the full list and Curriculum Vitae of all lawyers on a roster of about 100 lawyers worldwide, from which they could select a defence counsel. This list was not a closed one, but rather, was open to additions. Previously, the Tribunal presented each detainee with a short list of six lawyers from the full list in order to avoid a situation where one lawyer was chosen by two or more different accused persons, which was against the Tribunal's rules. A new short list could, however, be presented if the detainee rejected the previous one.
"I don't see any difference between your position and ours", the Registrar told the detainees. "You want counsel of your choice and that is what we want. The difference, in our view, is that you refuse to recognize the parameters within which the programme is operated. All programmes follow certain parameters and rules, and so, it is not a question of a limitation on your choice, but rather, that of a wider limitation on the programme itself", Mr. Okali said.
The senior United Nations official stressed that the criteria in the guidelines for the assignment of lawyers remained, and were also spelt out in the new list of lawyers now made available to the detainees. These included the rule against one defence counsel representing multiple clients indicted by the Tribunal, the requirement to maintain geographical balance in the assignment of lawyers, and that of taking into account the principal legal systems of the world. Furthermore, any counsel discharged from a case by the Judges for misconduct could not be appointed again in another case before the Tribunal.
Regarding the requirement of geographical representation, Mr. Okali reminded the detainees that "this is a very important criterion in the United Nations, and has also been utilized in the selection of judges for the Tribunal". In that connection, he reaffirmed the temporary moratorium on the assignment of lawyers from Canada and France as defence counsel in the Tribunal. "There are very good lawyers everywhere in the world", he said, noting that lawyers who were fluent in French language and versed in civil law traditions could also be found in several other European, Asian and African countries. Furthermore, the Tribunal had received letters from other defence counsel before it, taking issues with those who criticized the Tribunal's application of fair principles in the programme. The Registrar also noted that the funds for the assignment and remuneration of defence counsel were provided by the international community, and so it was important that these funds be managed judiciously.
Several detainees raised various questions after the Registrar's comments. Underlining that the principle of geographical balance had been applied in a manner most favourable to the detainees, Mr. Okali said that, if it was applied on the basis of regions, other European countries would have reduced opportunities because of the numbers of French lawyers. (Totals of 47 per cent of all defence counsel at the Tribunal are from Canada and France). However, as it was applied, the detainees were free to choose lawyers from, say Belgium or Switzerland.
In response to a question comparing the situation with the assignment of defence lawyers in the I CTR and that at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia at The Hague, Mr. Okali noted that most of the defence lawyers at the ICTY came from the former Yugoslavia, and so the matter presented less difficulties in that Tribunal. The context in the Rwanda Tribunal was different because there were very few qualified Rwandan lawyers who could represent the accused at Arusha, thus introducing a strong element of international participation in the defence counsel programme which called for balance in the selection process.
The detainees gave the ICTR Registrar a standing ovation at the conclusion of the meeting.