Monday, March 26, 2012

On the Munyenyezi Trial

I was listed as an 'expert' witness on the trial of Beatrice Munyenyezi, a Rwandan woman living in New Hampshire. Her trial, like that of Lazar Kabagoya in Kansas, resulted in a hung jury. Jason McLure wrote the following article, and it's an excellent read for anyone keen to understand genocide trials in American courts.

"U.S. trips in Rwanda prosecution

Who to believe, when the African government uses genocide memories as political tool?

During her rape by a militiaman, the nun screamed and spit at the face of the woman they called "Commander Beatrice," the witness recounted from the stand. "If you don't want to be like other women, let me take you somewhere else," the militiawoman responded. She took the nun to an open pit and shot her with a pistol.

The alleged rape and murder took place in Butare, Rwanda, during that country's 1994 genocide. The testimony was by Jean-Damascene "Saddam" Munyanyeza, a slight Rwandan wearing leg shackles and a blue work jacket that looked three sizes too large. He spoke not before an international tribunal, but through a translator to a federal jury in New Hampshire. The defendant, Beatrice Munyenyezi, 41, was on trial not for murder or genocide, but for immigration fraud.

Her trial was part of a multimillion-dollar effort by the U.S. Department of Justice and Immigration and Customs Enforcement to prosecute and deport U.S. residents suspected of involvement in Rwanda's 100-day slaughter, 18 years after it ended.

Only the government didn't succeed. The jury deadlocked, and U.S. District Judge Steven McAuliffe declared a mistrial on March 15. It was the second failed prosecution of someone accused of genocide during the past year.

Although international legal experts and human rights groups have praised the attempts to ensure justice for genocide victims, many question whether witnesses like "Saddam," provided by Rwanda's authoritarian, ethnic Tutsi-dominated government, are reliable. And almost no one claims that once deported to Rwanda, defendants will face a fair trial.

"The Rwandan government is making it impossible to tell false accusations from real ones, because they use genocide allegations as a political tool to silence dissent," said Brian Endless, a political scientist at Loyola University Chicago who studies Rwanda and advised Munyenyezi's defense.

Rwanda's government drew a different conclusion. "Some of these Western jurisdictions can't just understand the gravity of cases before them," Martin Ngoga, the country's prosecutor general, told Rwanda's The New Times following the mistrial. "They handle these cases in a very simplistic way. We have, in the past, applauded trials abroad because we thought they would substitute extradition. But this isn't happening; some countries have abused this process."

Defense attorneys David Ruoff and Mark Howard argued much the same point, but from the opposite perspective. "The approach that the federal government has taken is to apply Western norms and carve out witnesses from the heart of Africa and think the same norms will apply," Ruoff said. "That just doesn't apply here, and the government hasn't addressed that."

Carmen Ortiz, the Massachusetts U.S. attorney whose office prosecuted the case, in a formal statement called the outcome "unfortunate" and said the Justice Department was reviewing its options. The department noted its successful immigration prosecutions in the past of suspected former Nazis and people linked to massacres in Guatemala and Bosnia.

"The Justice Department is committed to ensuring that human rights violators from any region of the world are not granted safe haven in the United States," the department said. "As in every type of case, we conduct thorough investigations and bring charges we believe are supported by evidence sufficient to obtain and sustain a conviction."


Rwanda's genocide was preceded by four years of civil war between a Hutu-dominated government and Tutsi guerrillas. The spark was the shooting down of an airplane carrying President Juvénal Habyarimana, a Hutu, on April 6, 1994 — possibly by radical Hutus who feared he would make peace with the rebels. For 100 days, Hutu extremists in Rwanda's interim government directed soldiers and members of the Interahamwe militia to slaughter an estimated 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus out of a population of about 7 million people. The killings ended with the Tutsi rebels seizing power. Hundreds of thousands of Hutus fled to neighboring countries; several thousands of those who remained fell victim to reprisal killings.

Munyenyezi and her three children moved to the United States in 1998. Since the genocide, she had shuttled among refugee settlements in east Africa, but once in this country found an apartment, a car and a job with the Manchester Housing and Redevelopment Authority, where she became an advocate for refugees, according to Manchester's New Hampshire Union Leader. In 2003, she became a U.S. citizen in the same federal courthouse where she later would stand trial. By that time, she'd bought a home and was working on a memoir, Life In the Middle of Nowhere.

In 2005, she gave an interview about fleeing Rwanda. "I escaped, I locked up my house," she told New Hampshire Public Radio. "At some point, I thought I would go back in a few weeks, and I never knew that it was for good. And you know, I left everything, especially my wedding dress that I wish that I could have."

Munyenyezi's July 1993 marriage into a politically connected Hutu family has proven problematic. Her husband, Arsène Shalom Ntahobali, became a feared Hutu militia leader during the slaughter. Her mother-in-law, Pauline Nyiramasuhuko, was the minister of women's affairs in the government that oversaw the killings. Both were convicted for their roles in the genocide by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and sentenced to life in prison.

In 2006 Munyenyezi, traveled to Tan­zania to testify during her husband's trial; she told the court that Shalom hadn't participated in any crimes. At about that time, her life in the United States had begun to unravel; she lost her job to city budget cuts, according to the Union Leader. By 2008, she was working as a nurse's aide, making less than $1,000 a month. She declared bankruptcy and lost her home. That same year, her sister, who had also testified in Tanzania, was indicted on 10 counts of perjury and immigration fraud for allegedly lying under oath during her immigration proceedings about her membership in Habyarimana's political party (which before the peace talks sanctioned persecution of Tutsis).

According to Ruoff, immigration agents opened an investigation into Munyenyezi after someone sent investigators a transcript of her tribunal testimony.

Prosecutors Jon Capin and Aloke Chakravarty of the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Massachusetts attempted to prove at trial that Munyenyezi played a role in the genocide. Ruoff and Howard argued in turn that the government's case was built on unreliable witnesses, some of whom had admitted to mass murder themselves — "Saddam," for example, testified that he couldn't recall how many children he'd killed. They argued that Munyenyezi, who was pregnant with twins at the time, sheltered with other female family members from the carnage around her. Her relatives backed up that argument at trial, although eight Rwandan prosecution witnesses insisted that she was deeply engaged in the slaughter.

"It's the face I saw during the genocide, and it's a face I will never forget," testified Aleysia Mukankuriza, who described surviving by walking to Burundi despite a head wound. "A person who has done wrong to you, you will never forget."

"Saddam" accused Munyenyezi not only of killing of the nun, but also of procuring Tutsi girls to be raped, instructing him and other militiamen to construct a roadblock and making a radio speech warning Hutus not to shelter Tutsis.

By some estimates, as many as 80 percent of the Tutsis living in Rwanda were murdered in three months. Killing at that scale requires the participation of a wide swathe of the population. "I think anyone in Rwanda at that time has some stain on them," said Susan Thomson, a Hampshire College professor who has spent much of her career researching the genocide, and who was listed as an expert witness for Munyenyezi's defense but did not testify.


Munyenyezi's lawyers noted that in hundreds of pages of testimony before the international tribunal and in reports by Human Rights Watch and other groups, Munyenyezi's involvement is never mentioned, including by witnesses who would later testify at her trial. Moreover, a growing body of evidence suggested that the Rwanda's government is using genocide allegations to silence exiled political opponents and discourage defense witnesses from coming forward — as Munyenyezi did for her husband.

During the past 18 years, President Paul Kagame's Rwandan Patriotic Front government has been widely credited with rebuilding a country in ruins and restoring some form of normalcy. Since 2001, it has tried more than 1.2 million genocide-related cases before community courts known as gacaca. But it's also a country where questioning the official version of the genocide has been criminalized, opposition party leaders are jailed and attacked, and Kagame won the last two elections with more than 90 percent of the vote against no real opposition. The government has blocked the international prosecution of its own members for revenge killings.

During last year's trial of Lazare Kobagaya, an 84-year-old asylum-seeker in Kansas accused of charges similar to those against Munyenyezi, the jury deadlocked on one immigration fraud charge and convicted on a lesser charge. That conviction was dismissed after prosecutors acknowledged failing to share exculpatory evidence with the defense. Jurors in that case, which involved more than 80 witnesses and $1 million in costs, told The Associated Press that they unanimously rejected the genocide allegations, which were largely based on the testimony of Rwandans — even though most of them believed that Kobagaya had lied on his immigration paperwork.

Kobagaya had been reported by the Rwandan government to U.S. authorities after he testified via video for a Rwandan genocide defendant on trial in Finland, said Kurt Kerns, a Kansas lawyer who defended him. "We learned if you become a defense witness, you do so at your own risk," he said. "Nothing comes out of Rwanda without the Rwandan government's say-so. If the Rwandan government has a particular interest in prosecuting someone, they'll find the witnesses to say so."

Similarly, Leopold Munyakazi, a Rwandan exile and professor at Goucher College in Maryland, found himself accused of genocide by the Rwandan government and under investigation for immigration violations soon after claiming in a 2006 speech that the events in 1994 were not genocide but "fratricide."

Claims that the Rwandan government is using genocide accusations to silence defense witnesses or political opponents has been a common defense before the international tribunal and within Rwanda itself. A 2011 Human Rights Watch report on the community genocide courts found that "some defense witnesses were afraid to testify for fear of being accused of genocide themselves, and there were numerous allegations that gacaca courts sacrificed the truth to satisfy political interests."

Said Carina Tertsakian, a senior Rwanda researcher at Human Rights Watch: "It's a government that controls people very well and that has a strategy and knows quite well how to get what it wants. If it decides that it really wants this particular woman to be found guilty or sent back to Rwanda, it can quite easily find ways of rustling up witnesses and sending them over."

Balancing such doubts with the need to bring to justice to perpetrators is not likely to get easier. "Did she or didn't she? That's the million-dollar question," said Thomson, the Hampshire College researcher. "I wouldn't be surprised if she did. And I wouldn't be surprised if she didn't. But there's no way to know.""


Jason McLure
Office: (202) 370-6905
Mobile: (603) 991-4511

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