Munyenyezi defense takes issue with testimony alleging mass grave
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)
An expert on the Rwandan genocide testified yesterday that a mass grave was found behind the hotel owned by Beatrice Munyenyezi’s family, near the roadblock where the Manchester woman is accused of identifying Tutsis and sending them to be killed. But in Munyenyezi’s first trial last year, which ended with a hung jury, that same expert called the area a “major killing spot” while saying he didn’t know it to be a gravesite.
The discrepancy wasn’t lost on the defense.
“Identify for us the source of your information that there was a mass grave behind the hotel,” defense attorney Mark Howard asked Timothy Longman during his testimony at the U.S. District Court in Concord..
Longman said he may have read about the gravesite or heard it mentioned but was unable to cite a source. Longman, a professor who has extensively researched the genocide and is the government’s lead expert in the case, added there was a valley behind the hotel and most valleys in the town of Butare were used for burying bodies.
Munyenyezi is charged with lying on her application for U.S. citizenship about her role in Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, 100 days of turmoil in which an estimated 800,000 Tutsis were killed. In both the last trial and this one, her lawyers have capitalized on apparent inconsistencies made by the government’s witnesses.
On Friday, for example, a genocide survivor said she mentioned others who had participated in the violence, not just Munyenyezi, to U.S. investigators, only to have the defense prod at the statement and the prosecution itself confirm that she was mistaken.
Yesterday, Howard used the same tactic on Longman’s statement about the grave. The lawyer asked for proof, leading a prosecutor to pull out the last trial’s transcript in which Longman described the area as a place where people were murdered, not buried.
Howard also attempted to use Longman’s research to prove his theory: that those who testify against Munyenyezi have been pressured to lie by the government.
Longman testified that the current Tutsi-dominated government, the RPF, ended the genocide but went on to target many Hutus it blamed. He said that regime now promotes a dominant narrative about the genocide that highlights the RPF’s heroic role, masks the party’s own crimes and pressures the Hutus to feel guilt for the violence.
Howard wondered then how comfortable Rwandans would be deviating from the government narrative, asking if “agents show up with badges and they want to talk about Beatrice Munyenyezi,” whether someone would be inclined to tell them what they wanted to hear. Longman said that may have been the case shortly after the genocide. But, he said, both victims and perpetrators have in the last decade become more comfortable telling their stories. He said the government provides “outlines” for how its citizens should view the genocide but implied that the narrative wouldn’t extend to implicating specific people.
The defense also suggested yesterday that the Rwandan culture is one where people often tell stories they’ve heard from others as if they witnessed the events themselves. “Sometimes they take these stories and assume once they hear it that they were the witness to that (event), correct?” Howard asked without making clear which, if any, of the government’s witnesses he believes this applies to.
Longman disagreed. He testified that many well-known stories of the genocide have been repeated countless times in the communities where they took place, but he denied the repetition would lead people to lie about having witnessed things they hadn’t.
“You do not agree that Rwandans will often retell stories that they’ve heard, not that they’ve personally witnessed . . . as if they were in the first person, as if they saw it themselves?” Howard asked. Longman disagreed.
Longman, who lived in Rwanda before the genocide and has returned many times since, said earlier in the day that he listened to defense attorney David Ruoff’s opening statement last week and found his characterization of Rwandans to be misguided.
“The idea that Rwandans are fundamentally different from us, which is not something I find to be true, (and) the idea they’re all somehow liars, to me is an offensive comment,” Longman said.
Today is the trial’s fifth day.