Rwanda genocide trial of Manchester woman gets under way in Concord
Beatrice Munyenyezi (center) turns to speak to reporters as she leaves the Concord Federal Courthouse after being released on bail; Thursday, April 12, 2012. Munyenyezi is facing a second trial on charges that she participated in the 1994 Rwandan genocide then lied about her involvement to seek asylum in the United States. The manchester resident's first trial resulted in a mistrial though prosecutors are planning to retry the case. (Alexander Cohn/ Monitor staff)
When she applied for U.S. citizenship, Beatrice Munyenyezi portrayed herself as a victim of Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, concealing the chilling part she played in the violence, prosecutors said yesterday in federal court.
Holding images of the Manchester woman’s immigration forms before the jury, Assistant U.S. Attorney Aloke Chakravarty told them what Munyenyezi failed to fill out: that she had manned a roadblock outside her family’s hotel, checked identification cards and sent members of the Tutsi ethnic group to be either raped or slaughtered.
Chakravarty said Munyenyezi was part of the “machinery” of Rwanda’s genocide, 100 days of brutality that left 800,000 Tutsis dead.
But her lawyers questioned why, if she was such a visible participant, her name hasn’t come up before, not in books written about the genocide or at the trials of her husband and mother-in-law, who were charged in an international tribunal with organizing the violence.
Munyenyezi, a mother of three, showed little response as she listened to the opening statements in U.S. District Court in Concord; she’s heard the accusations before. Last year a first trial in her case ended with a hung jury.
Since that proceeding, eight new Rwandan witnesses have come forward to testify against Munyenyezi, her lawyer David Ruoff said. Describing the first trial as only a “prior proceeding,” Ruoff told the jury the new witnesses emerged after the case generated widespread publicity in Rwanda. And he suggested the witnesses have been pressured to lie to align themselves with a “genocide ideology” promoted by the nation’s government.
“In Rwanda if you are asked about the genocide and you say anything that varies from what they call the ‘dominant narrative,’ you are a criminal. You will go to jail,” he said. “When the witnesses come here from Rwanda they know they’re going back to Rwanda.”
Chakravarty advised the jury to not get sidetracked by the defense attorneys’ “international conspiracy.”
“They’re going to confuse you, distract you with this idea that you can’t believe anyone from Rwanda,” he said. “I submit to you that this is not what this case is about.”
Hatred of a minority
The Rwandan genocide began April 6, 1994, the day a plane carrying the nation’s president was shot down.
Chakravarty said that for several years prior, hatred of the Tutsi minority – which made up about 14 percent of the country’s population – had been growing, and the president’s assassination was a sign that it was time to “take care of business.”
“What that meant was abject slaughter of Tutsis,” he said. “If you were a moderate Hutu . . . then you, too, would be killed. . . . It was carnage, the likes of which we hopefully will never see and is hard for us to grasp.”
Dr. Rony Zachariah, a physician who came to Rwanda in February 1994 with a nonprofit organization, testified yesterday that the violence spread slowly to the town of Butare, where he was stationed and where Munyenyezi lived. When Zachariah first heard of the violence it wasn’t clear that Tutsis were being targeted.
But then more roadblocks spotted the landscape, he testified.
On April 17, he first heard mention of the Interahamwe, the youth militia of the MRND political party in control at the time. The Interahamwe carried out much of the violence and soon, Zachariah testified, he saw it firsthand, witnessing the brutal beating of a man at a roadblock and then on April 19 seeing a group of nearly 80 people running from men with machetes.
As they fled toward the border with Burundi, an older man fell behind and was slashed in the neck.
Yesterday, the doctor delivered the story in clinical terms, describing how the arteries to the brain had been severed, causing the old man to fall to the ground.
‘Hell on Earth’
But as Zachariah continued, he said nothing more of the individual wounds. He spoke in volume. Of the 80 people, he said, fewer than 10 made it over the border.
The bodies were thrown in the river.
“I’ve seen a lot,” he said. “But when I look back, it was hell on Earth.”
The doctor and his team continued their work, setting up at the hospital in Butare and treating injured civilians. Soon the military began sending wounded soldiers to the hospital, and Zachariah said they treated both groups for several days.
As the roadblocks multiplied, the streets became harder to navigate, according to Zachariah, who testified he was often stopped and asked if he was harboring Tutsis. Zacharia said his organization did employ locals. And on April 23, five of his nurses were rounded up by a soldier in the hospital lobby.
Four were Tutsis but one, a woman who was seven months pregnant, was a Hutu.
“I intervened physically between the soldier and Sabine,” he said. “(I yelled) ‘Sabine is Hutu! Sabine is Hutu! Leave her alone.’ ”
The soldier pulled several papers out of his pocket, studied the scribbled notes for a few moments and then looked up.
“He said, ‘Doctor, you are right. Doctor, you are right. Sabine is Hutu but this baby she is carrying is going to be Tutsi because her husband is Tutsi,’ ” Zachariah testified. “I felt numbed.”
Despite his protests, the nurse was killed.
Zachariah said that the next day, he and the rest of his team left the country, traveling south and crossing the border into Burundi.
But Mark Howard, the other defense attorney, questioned how those stories related to Munyenyezi.
Her lawyers have said she was pregnant with twins during the genocide and spent the time inside her family’s hotel, and Howard asked Zachariah if he even knew of her before he became involved in this case.
The doctor said he did not.
Howard said Zachariah also hadn’t testified before this case about seeing a roadblock outside of the hotel.
Yesterday the doctor called that barricade one of the more difficult ones in Butare to pass. But Howard said it wasn’t among eight the doctor mentioned when testifying during a genocide case in Canada.
“You told the people in Canada exactly where those roadblocks were,” Howard said.
“Yes. The question was not time-bound though,” Zachariah said, adding that the roadblocks were regularly moved by about 50 meters in either direction.
Howard appeared skeptical of the quick response.
“You seemed prepared to tell me the question was not time-bound. Been thinking about it, have you?” he asked.
Zachariah said he remembered the roadblock after studying the satellite photos found by the prosecutors.
“So after 17 years . . . not only now do you add it to the list,” Howard said. “It’s the worst one in town?”
Shortly before the genocide began, Munyenyezi married Shalom Ntahobali, whose mother was a minister in the MRND party.
Ntahobali and his mother, Pauline Nyiramasuhuko, are both serving life sentences after being convicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. Judge Steven McAuliffe has ordered that the convictions not be mentioned in this trial so the jury is not tempted to find Munyenyezi guilty by association.
Yesterday the jurors heard from Thierry Sebaganwa, a man who said he was friends with Munyenyezi’s husband before the genocide. Sebaganwa, testifying through an interpreter, said Ntahobali was a well-known member of the Interahamwe, the MRND youth militia.
“Was Beatrice a member of the Interahamwe?” Assistant U.S. Attorney John Capin asked.
“And she knows it,” Sebaganwa responded.
The defense attorneys objected, and when Sebaganwa was asked again, he responded with a simple, “Yes.”
Sebaganwa testified for about an hour before the trial’s first day came to a close. He’s expected to take the stand again this morning.
Many of Capin’s questions of Sebaganwa yesterday centered on logistics, as he pointed to a satellite photo from 1994 and asked the man to name specific buildings in the town. Capin then followed a similarly slow line of questions pertaining to Munyenyezi’s husband and mother-in-law, their political affiliations and how Sebaganwa knew them.
After the jury was excused for the day, McAuliffe asked the prosecutors to be more brief with the next witnesses. The judge has stressed that he would like to finish the complex case in two weeks, about a week quicker than the pace set in the last trial.
“I think you’re getting bogged down in this,” McAuliffe said before establishing that certain things could be taken as fact as the trial continues.
But the prosecutors said it’s important to establish that the witnesses have a deep understanding of the topic since the defense attorneys will likely attack their credibility.
McAuliffe said that if the defense lawyers go in that direction, he would let the prosecutors probe further. But for now, he advised, they should move along quickly.
“It’s so boring. And it’s so confusing. And it’s so repetitive,” McAuliffe said. “It really takes so much time and we’re losing the jury.”