Will Rwandan genocide come back to haunt PW Botha man?

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Cape Town-based non-profit organisation (NPO) Open Secrets wants Pretoria resident Willem “Ters” Ehlers prosecuted for aiding and abetting the April 1994 Rwanda genocide.

It submitted a memorandum to South Africa’s National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) in this regard on 20 June. The memorandum, a statement has it, was drawn up and forwarded in terms of section 27 of the NPA Act which permits any person with reasonable grounds to suspect a specified offence has been committed to report the matter to the NPA.

Ehlers, personal secretary to PW Botha when he was South Africa’s first Executive State President (1984 to 1989), also served in the then SA Navy (SAN) – rising to commodore rank – in the SAN of today that would be a rear admiral (junior grade).

In May last year Open Secrets published an investigative report – “The Secretary: how middlemen and corporations armed the Rwandan Genocide”. It was a call to hold to account arms dealers and banks, such as BNP Paribas, involved in the Rwandan genocide.

Ehlers, currently resident in Pretoria, according to Open Secrets, facilitated an arms deal on behalf of Théoneste Bagosora – said to be an architect of the Rwandan Genocide – which saw two large weapons shipments flown to Goma (in then Zaire) and taken across the border to Rwanda. The transaction and subsequent shipment happened in June 1994 – at the climax of the Rwandan Genocide and in contravention of a United Nations (UN) arms embargo on Rwanda.

The first shipment, according to Open secrets, included 25 000 AK-47 assault rifles, half a million rounds of 7.62 mm ammunition for them, 2 560 hand grenades, and nearly 34 000 rounds of 12.7 mm ammunition. The second shipment is said to have included 6 000 60 mm mortar rounds, 624 82 mm mortar rounds, 4 800 12.7 mm rounds, 5 440 37 mm rounds, 7 600 14.5 mm rounds, and 5 600 fragmentation grenades.

The weapons and ammunition were originally destined for Somalia but seized by the Seychelles whilst en route by the Seychelles.

Ehlers pocketed over $1.3 million for this role in the procurement of the weapons, Open Secrets maintains.

The memorandum draws on Open Secrets investigative work and explains how Ehlers, then secretary to Botha, established himself as a well-connected businessman in the early 1990s. “When Bagosora needed weapons, Ehlers was equipped to assist. Ehlers’ actions contributed to the exacerbation of the genocide and the devastating loss of life,” the statement reads in part.

Open Secrets believes there is sufficient evidence to satisfy the elements of the offence of aiding and abetting genocide under customary international law.

“Holding Ehlers accountable is not only a matter of addressing past wrongs but also setting a precedent that reinforces the rule of law and prevents future violations of international humanitarian law.

“Open Secrets urges the NPA to rigorously investigate the evidence presented and proceed with the prosecution in accordance with South Africa’s obligations under international law,” the organisation concluded.

Bagosora was charged and convicted of crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and, after spending the rest of his life in prison, died in September 2021.

Ehlers told Open Secrets he was merely a fixer and did not know that the weapons sent to Zaire would be transferred to Rwanda.