After five years of delays, South Africa is facing mounting pressure to issue arrest warrants for a group of alleged assassins who were found by police investigators to have direct links to the government of Rwandan President Paul Kagame.
In a ruling Thursday, a South African judge said the murder of Rwandan dissident Patrick Karegeya was committed by “known” persons. He cut short a planned inquest and ordered the case to be handed over to prosecutors, who will consider issuing arrest warrants.
Mr. Karegeya, a former Rwandan spy chief and top aide to Mr. Kagame who had a falling out with the President, was strangled to death in a luxury hotel room in Johannesburg on New Year’s Eve, 2013.
Justice Mashiane Mathopa made his ruling after receiving a new summary of the police investigation, which concluded that the suspects in the murder of Mr. Karegeya and several other attempted assassinations were “directly linked to the involvement of the Rwandan government.”
The police statement and judge’s ruling are further evidence supporting the findings of a 2014 investigation by The Globe and Mail, which documented the role of the Rwandan government in plots to kill Rwandan dissidents in South Africa and elsewhere.
The suspects in the Karegeya murder fled South Africa “immediately after the commission of the crime” and are still in Rwanda today, which makes it “very difficult” to trace them, the police statement said.
Instead of issuing arrest warrants in 2014, South African prosecutors waited more than four years and then called an inquest into Mr. Karegeya’s death. But after reviewing statements by witnesses and police, Justice Mathopa said there was no need for a full inquest because the suspects and the cause of death were already known. “There is a prima facie case against known persons,” he said.
Although there is no extradition treaty between Rwanda and South Africa, the Karegeya family wants South Africa to issue the arrest warrants, which would allow the suspects to be detained if they travel outside Rwanda. The judge’s ruling will add to this pressure.
In a statement summarizing the police investigation, Lieutenant-Colonel Kwena Motlhamme hinted at political interference and strained diplomatic relations that may have stalled the prosecution of the suspects.
He disclosed that police investigators had been summoned to South Africa’s Parliament in 2014, where they were questioned by MPs about the case and Rwanda’s role.
South Africa later expelled several Rwandan diplomats, accusing them of involvement in plots to assassinate Mr. Karegeya and another prominent dissident.
But in recent years, South Africa and Rwanda have been patching up their differences, and their leaders have held several meetings, leading to concerns among the Karegeya family that the South African government could try to bury the cases.
The family said they were pleased by the judge’s ruling on Thursday, which they see as a key step toward justice – even though they do not expect Rwanda to hand over the suspects.
“I’m extremely happy that in the end we got this judgment that implicates the people we’ve been suspecting,” said Mr. Karegeya’s widow, Leah Karegeya. “To hear it from the court is something we’re thankful for. It proves we were right.”
Gerrie Nel, a lawyer representing the Karegeya family, said the judge’s ruling makes it more likely that the prosecutors will finally issue arrest warrants.
“The assassins in this case can fly back into South Africa today and nothing will happen, because there’s no arrest warrant out for them,” he said. “They can come and go wherever they want to, because our law enforcement just failed to take the next step. … The reality is the assassins flew into the country, assassinated somebody and flew out of the country – and nothing has happened in five years. But now we have a judgment.”
Mr. Nel, who gained fame as the prosecutor in the Oscar Pistorius murder trial, said he will give the prosecutors three months to reach a decision. If they refuse to prosecute, he said, the family might pursue a private prosecution, which is permitted under South African law.