He needed a secure phone. That much was clear to team
leader Michael Hourigan of the UN International Criminal Tribunal for
Rwanda that day at the end of February 1997.
12 years of service as a policeman and 5 years as a lawyer with the
Crown Prosecution in his native Australia left Hourigan in no doubt
that the government of the tiny Central African country Rwanda would
not be pleased to hear what he had to tell his very topmost superior
about the unexpected turn, the investigation had taken.
And if the Rwandan government were to listen in on the UN’s open phone
lines, it would do everything in its power to obstruct subsequent investigation,
while the lives of witnesses would be left hanging by a thread.
Accompanied by a colleague, he drove down to the US embassy to borrow
the embassy’s STU-III, a third-generation Secure Telephone Unit developed
by the US National Security Agency (NSA) as a means of safe encrypted
But he was to regret the conversation. Today, he is certain that someone
listened in on the call.
It all began at 8.21 P.M. on April 6, 1994,
when the pilot in the exclusive Falcon 50 radioed the control tower
and received permission to land in the tiny state of Rwanda. VIPs were
onboard: the president and chief-of-staff of the country returning home
from peace negotiations in neighbouring Tanzania with the Rwandan Patriotic
Front (RPF) rebel group. But during descent to the runway, two missiles
came whistling towards the aircraft.
The news hit the radio in no time: The president has been murdered,
fetch your weapons, eliminate the culprits. A few hours later, roadblocks
had been scattered throughout Kigali, death squads dispatched, while
Hutu extremist politicians were busy exploiting the situation by hatching
During the ensuing 100 days, the new Hutu extremist government slaughtered
towards a million people. 2,500 UN peacekeepers in Rwanda charged with
monitoring a truce between President Habyarimana’s armed forces and
those of the RPF were instructed to stand by. Hostilities resumed and
in the end, the Hutu extremists were driven from power by the militarily
Afterwards, by way of consolation, the UN Security Council created the
International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and charged it with investigating
and prosecuting the masterminds. The tribunal mandate covered a long
range of crimes – and all parties involved. In article 4 in the statute
of the new tribunal, a crucial word was listed: terrorism.
In Kigali, Michael Hourigan had in 1996 set
up a special investigations team that in deep secrecy had begun taking
a closer look at the event that triggered the genocide. The assumption
from the outset was that it had been the Hutu extremists that shot down
the aircraft in order to use the assassination as an excuse to seize
power. A hypothesis shared widely with most academics and media.
But at the beginning of 1997, the investigation of the small team began
pointing in the opposite direction: that it had been the RPF that by
means of a well-calculated terrorist attack had attempted to destabilise
the country – in order to have an excuse to resume hostilities and seize
An explosive conclusion in a country ruled ruthlessly by the RPF. But,
nevertheless, a conclusion that Hourigan felt obliged to communicate
to the chief prosecutor of the tribunal, Canadian Louise Arbour, who
worked out of the Hague in the Netherlands.
Problem was, the UN had no STU-III phones. And
it was well known that UN investigators in Rwanda were snooped upon
by the new regime both in private and at work – “sometimes I could hear
them talk in the background,” as another former investigator told Information
about the eavesdropping.
But US embassies are equipped with STU-IIIs. Michael Hourigan’s colleague
and good friend, Jim Lyons, a retired FBI officer, knew people at the
US embassy. If they were able to borrow the encrypted phone for an important
conversation? No problem, the embassy replied. So Lyons and Hourigan
drove from the former posh Chinese sports hotel at the outskirts of
town that house investigators’ offices to a grated building displaying
Stars & Stripes in downtown Kigali.
At the embassy, the staff willingly helped the two UN investigators
and set up the STU-III to connect with the US embassy in the Hague where
Louise Arbour had likewise turned up. “It was a warm call,” Hourigan
remembers today, when asked by Information about the approximately ten
minutes he spoke on the phone with Arbour. Your news that it appeared
to be the RPF that shot down the aircraft fits with other information,
I have received, Arbour replied. ”It was clear to me by listening to
the conversation that she was pleased with the progress of the case,”
Jim Lyons tells Information today.
Hourigan and Arbour did not exchange details but ended the call by agreeing
that Hourigan was to make his way to the Hague to discuss the exact
course of the future investigation of the matter.
She was a kind lady. Competent, professional,
respected and well-liked by investigators in Kigali. “She was very pleasant,
very easy to talk to. I kind of liked her. She was not snobbish like
many high-ranking judicial officers,” Hourigan recalls.
But the day he and two colleagues were let into her office in the Hague,
barely two weeks after the warm phone conversation, it appeared as if
she had undergone a complete change. “She was very aggressive from the
outset, not friendly like before,” he recalls. “Very confrontational.”
The tribunal is only mandated to investigate the genocide as such –
and that did not begin until just after the presidential plane had been
downed, Arbour charged.
Hourigan objected that the tribunal was mandated to investigate and
prosecute crimes committed throughout 1994 and that terrorism was explicitly
mentioned in the statute – and that she had, moreover, already known
of the investigation for about a year.
But his opinion did not interest her. She had taken advice on the matter,
she said, according to Hourigan.
Hourigan had authored a three-page memorandum on willing witnesses that
he passed on to Arbour.
If that was the only copy, she inquired.
Yes, Hourigan replied.
Good, she retorted, leaving the table to file the document. Adding that
Hourigan was welcome to leave.
But what had happened during the less than two weeks
in between the phone call and the meeting at Arbour’s office in
the Hague? And from whom had Arbour been taking advice? Just as is the
case at national courts, UN prosecutors must be entirely independent
from other authorities, including the UN secretary-general, but much
suggests that someone in the UN system had involved him- or herself
in the decision-making process, both Hourigan and Lyons think. We rewind
a few days.
A few days after the phone conversation at the US
embassy, Hourigan found himself in a one-to-one meeting with Micheal
Hall, the deputy chief of the UN Security and Safety Services. Micheal
Hall was in Rwanda to review the tribunal’s security system, but it
quickly emerged that influential people had instructed Hall to make
sure Hourigan were to leave Rwanda as quickly and safely as possible.
When the day of Hourigan’s departure dawned, Hall escorted Hourigan
to the airport. And then that happened, that should not have happened.
The small UN aircraft had been fully booked and by way of a mistake,
Hourigan’s name was not on the passenger manifesto. In the bureaucratic
UN tradition, this normally means that the frustrated traveller stands
a snowball’s chance in hell of getting onboard.
The ground aviation official refused to give in.
The situation turned tense, while Hall made it abundantly clear that
he did not care who was to get bumped off that airplane. UN Secretary-General
Kofi Annan had personally instructed him to see to it that Hourigan
was to leave on that plane. If the official would care himself to call
Kofi Annan and ask? The man felt no urge. Another passenger had to give
up his seat, before the plane with the Australian investigator was able
to taxi for the runway.
Today, Hall has “no comments” to offer Information about the abovementioned
chain of events.
But how could Kofi Annan have gotten wind of the
investigation? There are two options: “I think she called New York,
UN headquarters, and they said ah ah, we don’t wanna get into that,”
Lyons says, adding that the UN leadership was fully aware that neither
the Rwandan government nor its ally the US government would appreciate
the investigation, which he for the very same reason never told his
own government in Washington about. “It supported the RPF financially
and with training. If I told my government that, they would go straight
back to [Rwandan President Paul, ed.] Kagame.“
Hourigan nevertheless believes that the most likely scenario is that
the US intercepted the phone call and then persuaded Annan to put pressure
on Arbour to close down the enquiry. “I realise now that it was a terrible
mistake, because that call was not secure,” Michael Hourigan says. “She
and I were not the only ones on the line that day.” This eavesdropping
theory is not regarded as credible by Lyons.
But it is definitely technically possible, according to Wayne Madsen,
a former employee of the NSA’s communications security branch, who today
works as an intelligence analyst for the intelligence publication geopolitique.com.
As issuer of the encryption keys used to scramble conversations in one
end of the call and unscramble them in the other end, NSA has what is
termed a ‘backdoor’ for STU-IIIs; the agency’s technicians know the
master encryption key and are thus able to decode conversations between
any STU-III phones, Madsen explains.
In September 1999 Louise Arbour was appointed to
the Canadian Supreme Court and replaced by Swiss Carla Del Ponte.
At that time, the tribunal had indicted quite a few Hutu extremists,
but – as is still the case – no RPF soldiers. In
an interview with the Danish daily Aktuelt in March 2000, Del Ponte
revealed that she shortly after she took office had appointed a special
team to specifically investigate RPF war crimes.
And Del Ponte also took an interest in the terrorist attack against
Habyarimana’s jet, she said in the same interview. But
any documents covering the previous terrorist investigation had apparently
disappeared. “I have no information, no documents, nothing.”
Instead, she had begun cooperating with Jean-Louis Bruguičre, a French
anti-terror magistrate who at the request of the late President Habyarimana’s
family, which lives in exile in France, had asked him to investigate
the circumstances around the downing of the aircraft. Habyarimana’s
family wanted to sue RPF leader and Rwandan President Paul Kagame for
And Del Ponte wanted to await the result of Bruguičre’s investigation,
before she decided whether to reopen the case, she said.
But things never got that far.
In September 2003, the UN Security Council decided to split the job
as chief prosecutor, which had until then covered both Rwanda and the
former Yugoslavia, into two: one for each country. Del Ponte received
one of the two new jobs, but although she made it clear to Kofi Annan
that she would have preferred continuing in Rwanda and leave the former
Yugoslavia to someone else, “unfortunately, I was not given the luxury
of choosing,” she explained in an interview with the non-profit news
service Hirondelle – and “yes, pressure from Rwanda contributed to the
non-renewal of my mandate”.
These days everybody is busy forgetting the
shooting down of the small Falcon 50. “We cannot be diverted by those
who want to make this an issue. I don't think it's important for the
survivors to find out who shot down the plane," Washington Post was
recently told by Emmanuel Ndahiro, one of President Kagame’s advisers,
whose government have prepared a weeklong USD 7,5 million string of
mainly donor-financed commemoration ceremonies set to commence tomorrow.
“We should be helping the people who are still alive, not worried about
something that happened in the past.”
Louise Arbour takes pleasure in talking about human rights issues. But
if questions are asked about the small jet, the spokesman of the Canadian
Supreme Court is instructed to say “no comments”. “The official line
is no comments,” is also the message to Information from tribunal spokesman
Last month French paper Le Monde succeeded in obtaining a copy of the
French anti-terror magistrate’s preliminary report, which concludes
that RPF was behind the downing of the Habyarimana jet. When the official
report is due, Bruguičre’s office would not reveal to Information.
But all the same, at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda
noone is waiting any longer for the French magistrate’s report. The
shooting down of the aircraft, said the new chief prosecutor for Rwanda,
Gambian Hassan Bubacar Jallow, on a press conference in January, “that
is not a case that falls within our jurisdiction.”
FOLLOWING ARTICLES WERE ALSO PUBLISHED ON APRIL 6: