Protests make Spain's PM skip meeting with Rwandan leader
Spain's Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero opted out of a UN-sponsored meeting Friday with Rwandan leader Paul Kagame after protests that Kagame's regime was linked to Rwanda's genocide.
Zapatero had "received a request from certain political parties to not meet" Kagame because of Spanish legal proceedings against 40 Rwandan officers linked to the 1994 genocide, Deputy Prime Minister Maria Teresa Fernandez de la Vega said.
He was "sensitive to that and responded" by deciding not to attend the meeting, where UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is also expected, she told public television TVE.
Zapatero's decision not to attend the Madrid meeting on advancing the fight against poverty was announced Thursday when his spokesman said he would be represented by Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos.
The meeting had also been moved from government headquarters to a Madrid hotel, the spokesman said, while Zapatero would have separate talks with Ban.
"It is not a big deal for us. It is Spain's internal politics," Rwandan Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo told reporters on the sidelines of the gathering.
"We would like the Spanish people to get to know Rwanda's President Kagame better. He is not what we see him portrayed as."
During an interview with Spanish news radio Cadena Ser, Ban refused comment on the Spanish legal proceedings against Rwandan officials.
He stressed that Rwanda was one of the "rare" African nations that have made "significant" progress in the fight against infant mortality.
The meeting is the first of the MDG Advocacy Group set up last month by the United Nations to advance the Millennium Development Goals, which include halving extreme poverty by 2015, with Zapatero and Kagame named co-chairs.
The Coordinating Committee for Development NGOs in Spain sparked off the protests on Thursday. saying the UN's choice of Kagame for the post was "questionable".
It criticised "Zapatero's passivity for accepting without objection to work beside someone accused of genocide".
A total of seven political parties also called on Zapatero to skip the meeting, and the spokesman for the ruling Socialist party, Jose Antonio Alonso, said Friday he was uncomfortable with Kagame's presence in Spain.
"It seems he has a more than shady past in Rwanda," ex-defence minister Alonso said.
In 2008 Spain's High Court announced its intention to prosecute 40 Rwandan army officers for genocide, crimes against humanity and terrorism related to events that took place between 1994 and 2000, including under Kagame's rule.
Kagame's then rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front in July 1994 ended the 100-day slaughter of at least 800,000 people, mostly from his Tutsi minority, by Hutu extremist militias and government troops.
But the Spanish judiciary accuses Kagame of fomenting the ethnic clashes in a bid to seize power. The Rwandan officers are accused, among other things, of murdering nine Spanish missionaries and expatriates allegedly witnesses to massacres.
Under Spanish law a court can prosecute human rights crimes even if the alleged offences took place abroad.
But Kagame is immune from prosecution because of his status as head of state. His government has vehemently rejected the accusations.
A lawyer for the families of the killed Spanish nationals said Zapatero's decision not to attend the meeting with Kagame was only window dressing.
"Zapatero has not declined, until now, the invitation to co-chair this initiative", Jordi Palou said national radio RNE.
De la Vega said it was important that the talks on the MDG go ahead.
© 2010 AFP