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Accused genocide participant Munyenyezi never left hotel during violence, family members say

FILE - In this April 12, 2012 file photo, Beatrice Munyenyezi, right, leaves the federal courthouse in Concord, N.H., after a mistrial in a case on whether she lied about her role in the 1994 Rwanda genocide to obtain U.S. citizenship. Testimony resumed Thursday, Feb. 7, 2013, in her new trial on the charges. (AP Photo/Jim Cole, file)

FILE - In this April 12, 2012 file photo, Beatrice Munyenyezi, right, leaves the federal courthouse in Concord, N.H., after a mistrial in a case on whether she lied about her role in the 1994 Rwanda genocide to obtain U.S. citizenship. Testimony resumed Thursday, Feb. 7, 2013, in her new trial on the charges. (AP Photo/Jim Cole, file)

Several Rwandan witnesses who said they spent the genocide at the hotel owned by Beatrice Munyenyezi’s family testified yesterday that they never saw her wear clothing of the MRND, the party that had ordered the violence. Those witnesses, relatives of Munyenyezi and also staff at the hotel where she lived and worked, depicted the Manchester woman as an attentive yet frail mother, whose infant daughter was never far from her side and who was often tired because she was again pregnant.

Prosecutors say Munyenyezi spent the 1994 genocide working at a roadblock a few yards from that Butare hotel’s front door, where she checked identification cards and separated Tutsis who would be killed or raped.

According to the five witnesses who testified yesterday, that would be impossible. Many said Munyenyezi rarely left their side.

“God be my witness, I never saw her wearing any military clothes,” Venerande Uwiteyakazana, whose nephew is Munyenyezi’s father-in-law, said through a translator at U.S. District Court in Concord.

Prosecutors, though, questioned how much the witnesses really had seen, leading most to testify that while they waited out the violence at the Ihuriro Hotel, they weren’t able to look outside the high walls that surrounded the compound. Assistant U.S. Attorney John Capin also suggested that one of the witnesses actually identified Munyenyezi as a member of the MRND when she spoke to U.S. investigators in 2008, the year they began investigating her.

That woman, Alice Ahishakiye, said yesterday that before the genocide she worked as a cook for Munyenyezi’s mother-in-law, who at the time was a cabinet minister in the controlling government and who since has been convicted in an international court of helping orchestrate the genocide. Just before the violence broke out, she went to the Ihuriro Hotel to work as a cook for Munyenyezi’s father-in-law, she said.

Ahishakiye said she spent all of the genocide at the hotel and never once saw Munyenyezi in MRND clothes.

But when Capin began questioning the woman, he asked if she had told an American agent in 2008 that Munyenyezi was a member of the political party. (After the jury was dismissed for the day, Capin assured Judge Steven McAuliffe that the woman was interviewed by investigators and that they remember her making that statement.)

But the woman told Capin that she didn’t remember telling them that, nor does she now remember Munyenyezi as a member of the party.

“Was your memory of whether or not she was a member of the MRND fresher back in 2008 when you spoke with an American investigator?” Capin asked

“I do not remember anything of that,” she said.

Capin continued to press the issue, asking the woman if she knew what party was in control during the genocide.

“I do not recall anything,” she said.

“You have no memory of which party was in power during the 100 days when nearly a million people were murdered?” he asked.

“At that time, myself, the work I was doing, it was nothing to do with what was happening,” she said.

All of the witnesses yesterday described the Ihuriro Hotel as a safe haven, where members of Munyenyezi’s extended family sought refuge. That included Tutsis, according to Gilbert Hitimana, who testified yesterday that while he is a member of the targeted ethnic group, his mother is a Hutu. (Ethnicity in Rwanda is passed down paternally.)

The man said that near the start of the genocide his family was attacked by MRND militants who killed several of his siblings by beating them and throwing them in a well. So his mother, who is related to Munyenyezi’s father-in-law, traveled to the hotel and asked for her relatives’ help, he said.

“They pleaded to them, my dad and my mother, that, ‘My children were killed last night and they were dumped in the well. But I knew that there were some who had escaped. You’d really help me, and be able to pick them up and put them to safety,’ ” he said.

He said the family sent a car to pick him up, and he spent the rest of the genocide at the hotel.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Aloke Chakravarty asked Hitimana how he passed his time there, and the man said that while he spent most of it in the basement where he lived, he and the other children sometimes played outside in the yard. Several other witnesses have said many people were killed in a wooded area near the hotel, so Chakravarty asked the man if he ever heard screaming.

The man said he hadn’t and that he never saw any signs of the genocide while he was in Butare.

“You didn’t hear any gunshots your entire time you were there?” Chakravarty asked.

“We heard gunshots. That’s when we escaped,” the man said. “That’s when we were fleeing.”

Pressured to lie?

The defense attorneys are trying to prove that the witnesses testifying against Munyenyezi have been pressured by the Rwandan government to lie.

Yesterday, the prosecutors attempted to debunk that theory by asking several of the defense witnesses if they had ever been threatened because they were speaking in America on behalf of Munyenyezi, a Hutu.

Venantie Nyiramariro, the sister of Munyenyezi’s father-in-law, said that isn’t the case.

“And no one from the Rwandan government has ever put any pressure on you?” Chakravarty asked.

“There isn’t any,” the woman said.

The defense attorneys have also questioned why none of Munyenyezi’s accusers ever mentioned her crimes before, even though many have spoken in other courts about the genocide. Several witnesses have responded by saying they saw countless people taking part in the violence and they never mentioned Munyenyezi because no one asked about her.

The prosecutors also attempted to poke holes in that defense theory with their own witnesses.

Venuste Habinshuti, a man who worked as a cook at the hotel toward the end of the genocide and testified that Munyenyezi was never in MRND clothing, said he hadn’t talked about what happened at the hotel until he spoke to Munyenyezi’s investigators.

But Capin pointed out that the man was living at a home with prominent people.

Munyenyezi’s mother-in-law was a cabinet minister in the controlling government. Her husband, Shalom Ntahobali, led the local youth militia and has also been convicted of war crimes in an international tribunal.

“Am I correct in understanding that in the 19 years since the genocide, no investigators asked you about what happened at the Ihuriro until Beatrice’s lawyers asked you?” Capin asked.

The man said that was true.

“In 19 years nobody asked you to tell them what Shalom did during the genocide?” Capin said.

“The only people I saw are those representing Beatrice,” the man responded. “Nobody else.”

(Tricia L. Nadolny can be reached at 369-3306 or tnadolny@cmonitor.com or on Twitter at @tricia_nadolny.)

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