Rwandan Man Convicted of War Crimes in Canadian Court
The judge hadn’t even finished reading his verdict before Désiré Munyaneza put his head in his hands and bent over in the prisoners' box. He stole a look at his wife and sister sitting in the front row of the courthouse and shook his head, slightly smiling in disbelief.
All three defence lawyers looked increasingly dismayed, while Munyaneza’s relatives wiped tears from their eyes.
A guilty verdict on all seven counts soon followed, propelling the Rwandan into the history books as the first to be tried and convicted under Canada’s decade-old Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes Act.
Superior Court Justice André Denis concluded that Munyaneza, now 42, was one of the key co-ordinators and participants of the systematic extermination of the Tutsi ethnic group and politically moderate Hutus during Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, in which 800,000 people were killed in 100 days.
“To that end, he intentionally killed Tutsi, seriously wounded others, caused them serious physical and mental harm, sexually assaulted many Tutsi women and generally treated Tutsi inhumanely and degradingly,” Denis wrote. “(Munyaneza) could have refused to participate or refrained from participating in a plan, but he chose to be one of its driving forces.”
Munyaneza beat to death children trapped in sacks. He looted homes and businesses. He murdered hundreds of people, 400 of whom had sought refuge inside a church.
In the fall, the mass murderer will be sentenced to life in prison.
The verdict brings to a close a decade of work for Guy Poudrier, the RCMP’s lead investigator in the case, and sets the stage for future prosecutions of war criminals hiding in Canada – a number some experts put as high as 1,500.
And while there is no doubt the precedent-setting verdict will be appealed – defence lawyer Richard Perras said he’d started drafting the motion before the decision – international human rights observers applauded the outcome.
“I think it’s a victory for the professionalism of the Canadian justice system to say these trials are not too expensive, they’re not too complicated, they don’t pose insurmountable legal hurdles, we can do them here,” said Bruce Broomhall, professor of international criminal law at Université du Québec à Montréal. “It’s not to say we’re going to do them every day, but I think those who say they can’t be done have lost a bit of their credibility at this point.”
Denis was unequivocal in his assessment of the witnesses – 66 of them – presented by both sides and in five countries. The credibility of those for the prosecution was “superior” to those of the defence, he said.
“Most of the defence witnesses did not see the accused during the genocide,” Denis wrote. “According to a number of them, there was no rape, no murder, no corpses in Butare. In fact, there was no genocide.”
Broomhall called such a sweeping statement a “slam dunk for the prosecution” while defence lawyer Perras called it grounds for appeal, saying some prosecution witnesses gave contradictory evidence about what Munyaneza did.
One witness said Munyaneza was shooting people at the church, another said he left before the shooting began “and the judge believed them both,” Perras said. “Either he was there, or he wasn’t.”
Denis’ 222-page verdict is another sad chapter in the history of a country whose people were divided into groups by Belgian colonizers, in classic divide-and-rule fashion. The long-standing rivalry between the two didn’t begin with the shooting down of the president’s plane on April 6, 1994, but that was the event that set in motion the government-planned initiative to wipe out the Tutsis once and for all. The next day, the slaughter began in earnest, and by the time the chaos reached Butare, the intellectual capital of the country, Munyaneza and his teams were ready.
Munyaneza, who has a master’s degree in economics from the National University of Rwanda, was part of the small bourgeois class that had money, weapons and vehicles. His father, Isaac Munyagasheke, was a former member of Parliament and the most important businessman in Butare, running a beer and soft drink business.
After dividing his time among Kenya, Belgium and Rwanda, Munyagasheke was arrested in February in Butare on charges that he participated in and helped plan the genocide, bought machetes, and was responsible for the deaths of 17 women in his house. He is to be tried by the gacaca, or a grassroots court, made up of community elders.
His son – one of seven children – arrived in Montreal in 1997 and claimed refugee status. His claim was dismissed in September, 2000 and twice again on appeal but he was never given notice of his pending deportation, likely because by then, Canada’s war crimes unit of the department of justice was on to him thanks to a tip from a Rwandan living here.
When the trial began in January, 2007, the defence, prosecution and judge headed to Rwanda to hear testimony of witnesses who couldn’t come to Canada. Denis spoke of Rwanda as a far-off, strange place, asking their trip organizers whether it would be safe to go out at night or if there’d be an Internet connection.
His verdict, which he took five months to write, read like that of a man who had a steep learning curve, as well as an experience that had touched him deeply.
He described one woman’s testimony as “akin to a long, constrained moan.” Another woman “carried all the pain of the world on her frail shoulders.”
Running through a long list of witnesses – who were identified only by number for fear of reprisals – Denis began each assessment with “I believe,” a phrase Broomhall said gives the survivors the affirmation they need.
“I believe C-16,” wrote Denis, “when she said that (Munyaneza) and his group forced refugees ... to get into a pickup and took them away after savagely beating them. They were never seen again. She herself was taken with other Tutsi to a common pit by the same group and left for dead.”
Aside from Rwandans who survived the genocide, the defence called Senator Roméo Dallaire, who was head of the ill-equipped UN mission in the Central African country. Denis’s conclusion of Dallaire was that he is sincere and credible but “came out of that experience completely broken.”
Denis criticized the testimony of Munyaneza’s mother and sister, who testfiied for the defence, saying they denied preparing their testimonies together to help the case.
“That might be a natural reaction, but by repeatedly denying the obvious, one loses much credibility.”
Another defence witness lost credibility when he said he “saw nothing and took part in nothing, as if nothing had happened in Butare in 1994.”
But whether on the side of the defence or the prosecution, Denis concluded that the proof showed that “no Rwandan came out unscathed from the events of spring 1994.
“Nearly15 years after the genocide, Rwandans are afraid. Their wound is immense, still present, unbearable and indelible, for both victims and executioners.”
Broomhall agreed that the emotion the judge showed in his verdict will mean alot to Rwandan genocide survivors, who will interpret it as international recognition of their suffering.
“I think Judge Denis saw for the first time what it’s like to encounter a society that’s gone through that kind of horror,” Broomhall said.
In addition, Broomhall said, the trial was a chance to make the Canadian public aware so that they push the government to investigate and prosecute more war criminals in Canada.
“It’s not enough to keep them out with immigration remedies. You have to prosecute once in a while too because otherwise they’re going to keep coming.”