A key organiser of Rwanda’s genocide could be freed from his 35-year sentence unless the Turkish government releases a judge allocated to hear his appeal case at an international criminal tribunal.

Judge Aydin Sedaf Akay was arrested in Turkey last year, one of thousands of legal and public figures imprisoned following a failed coup attempt. Judge Theodore Meron, president of the Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals (MICT), has so far refused to allocate a replacement fearing that removal from the appeal case will mean Akay loses his diplomatic immunity, asserted by the United Nations secretary general.

Rwandan former government minister Augustin Ngirabatware was convicted of genocide, incitement to commit genocide and rape as a crime against humanity, and is nine years into a 35-year sentence. An estimated 800,000 people died in the Rwandan genocide.

At a special hearing this week, Peter Robinson, counsel for Ngirabatware, asked the court to set a deadline of 48 hours for Akay’s release. If that deadline was not met, Robinson urged the release of his client. The court accepts that indefinite delay to the appeal hearing is not acceptable.

No government of Turkey representative attended the hearing, despite invitations being sent to Turkish embassies in Tanzania and The Hague. The embassies failed to reply to emails and to accept service by courier. 

Prosecution counsel Michelle Jarvis argued that Meron could opt to ‘rotate’ Akay to other duties without compromising his diplomatic immunity. She was closely questioned by Meron who repeatedly expressed concern that removing Akay from the case without consulting the judge would damage the principle of judicial independence.

Jarvis also opposed Ngirabatware’s release pending appeal on grounds that included ‘flight risk’.

Meron has retired to consider the arguments. Contacted by telephone, Turkey’s embassies told MICT staff that they would not accept communications from the tribunal.