Judge expresses frustration with prosecution in Rwanda genocide trial
A federal court judge criticized prosecutors’ handling of Beatrice Munyenyezi’s trial yesterday, calling their case “unbalanced” and accusing them of eliciting 40 minutes of rambling testimony for every 5 minutes of evidence.
Judge Steven McAuliffe’s harsh words came as the fifth day of testimony, in a trial the judge is trying to cap at two weeks, came to a close. Munyenyezi is accused of helping identify Tutsis to be killed at a roadblock during the 1994 genocide, then lying about her involvement when she applied for U.S. citizenship.
But several of the Rwandan witnesses who have already taken the stand have given substantial testimony about Munyenyezi’s husband and mother-in-law, who have each been convicted in an international court of helping organize and carry out the genocide.
McAuliffe decided to remind the lawyers who they’re prosecuting.
“Shalom is not on trial here, okay?” McAuliffe said, naming Munyenyezi’s husband.
One of the prosecutors said he was aware of that fact.
“Well you don’t seem to,” McAuliffe continued. “Your opening statement was all about, ‘This is not about genocide. It’s about lying on forms.’ And yet all the questions are about the mother-in-law” and the husband.
McAuliffe has been critical of the prosecutors before, but this was the first time the judge hit at the substance, not just the delivery, of their case.
As he spoke to the lawyers after the jury at U.S. District Court in Concord was dismissed, McAuliffe again asked them to pick up the pace and spend less time going over the same details with each witness, such as the political affiliation of Munyenyezi’s family members and the precise location of the hotel where they lived together.
The prosecutors, though, have argued that they need to show each witness has a deep and personal knowledge of the topic because the defense is intent on attacking their credibility. Munyenyezi’s lawyers say she’s innocent and argue her accusers are relaying a story promoted by the Rwandan government.
But McAuliffe said the testimony is painfully repetitive.
“The jury is giving me looks like, ‘Can’t you stop this?’ ” he said.
McAuliffe reminded the lawyers that he can.
“The jury has heard this over and over and over and over,” he said before suggesting a more direct approach for the prosecutors. “ ‘Do you live in Butare? How old were you? Are you familiar with the town you grew up in? Do you know the (Hotel Ihuriro)? Great, tell us about it.’ You don’t need to spend 30 minutes on, ‘Did you walk by it every day or every other day?’ ”
Part of the machine?
Prosecutors have described Munyenyezi as a piece in the “machinery” of Rwanda’s genocide, 100 days of turmoil in which an estimated 800,000 Tutsis, 80 percent of the population, were killed. She’s accused of checking identification cards at a roadblock outside her family’s hotel in Butare and sorting out those who would be murdered or raped.
As each Rwandan witness has described that roadblock, they’ve first pointed out the hotel on a set of grainy, gray satellite photos taken in June and July 1994, in the midst of the genocide.
Yesterday, the prosecutors zoomed in on the images. And an expert described details not visible to an untrained eye, like two dozen items clustered in the backyard of a school next to the hotel.
Department of Defense image analyst Eric Benn said those items weren’t there on a satellite photo taken four days prior.
“Some are light. Many are quite dark,” he said, describing the marks. “Some of them are almost too big to be individuals. If they are people they could be pairs of people or multiples of people.”
He called them “features.” And beside the features, he described what appeared to be a mound of dirt.
Benn’s assessment of the images from June and July 1994 also appeared to support what witnesses have already said about a roadblock where Munyenyezi is accused of working. A man who testified last week that he passed through the barricade on foot described it as a series of items in the roadway that cars had to swerve around to pass. Benn yesterday, reviewing the image, pointed out several cars that appeared to be curving around items in the roadway.
But defense attorney David Ruoff questioned why the government only produced photographs showing the area around the hotel during a small portion of the genocide, which started April 6, 1994, and spread to Butare about two weeks later. Ruoff showed Benn another satellite image, which the prosecutor hadn’t shown the jury, that was taken in late May of that year. That image, while blurry, didn’t appear to show any obstacles in the road, Benn said.
Ruoff asked if any images were taken in April. (Several of the witnesses have testified that is when they saw the roadblock in front of the hotel.)
Benn responded that those in his office who had worked on the case hadn’t produced images from April; he couldn’t confirm that none existed. He said the Department of Defense was asked to review satellite images and look for any showing obstructions in the roadway, not images showing a lack of obstructions.
That prompted McAuliffe to ask Benn if he could get a definitive answer one way or the other.
“The basic problem is the defense wants to know, ‘Are there images of this road in April that may show no obstructions?’ ” McAuliffe said.
But Assistant U.S. Attorney John Capin said he asked for any images taken during the genocide. Defense attorney Mark Howard then asked Capin to provide that initial written request.
The prosecutors said they would look for it. The issue was not taken up again yesterday.
While the defense questioned the existence of a roadblock outside the hotel in late April 1994, another Rwandan witness testified yesterday that he saw that blockade with his own eyes.
Jean Paul Rutaganda, who was about 15 years old during the genocide, said he hid with other Tutsis at the school next to the hotel while Hutus canvassed the city looking for people to kill. Rutaganda said from the school he could see Munyenyezi at the roadblock, writing in a notebook. And he said that from one corner of the compound he could hear screams and cries of people who were being killed in the nearby woods.
But at times during Rutaganda’s testimony it was unclear if he was talking about things he had actually witnessed during his three days at the school, which is several hundred feet from the hotel, or things that he inferred to have taken place. At one point, Capin asked what he saw Munyenyezi doing at the roadblock.
“She was counting, registering dead Tutsis and others who were not yet dead,” he said, testifying through a translator.
Capin asked how he knew that.
“Tutsis that would die at that time had been already registered and counted,” Rutaganda responded.
The prosecutor asked if he could see what Munyenyezi was writing.
“I couldn’t see the words,” he said. “But you could see exactly what the action she was doing.”
Ruoff, though, questioned just how well Rutaganda could see the roadblock. Reading an investigation report from when U.S. agents interviewed him about the genocide, Howard asked if Rutaganda had claimed to have seen Munyenyezi wearing a pin with the president’s picture on it.
The witness agreed that he had.
Rutaganda also testified yesterday that he had spent much of his time at the school in the corner of the compound farthest from the hotel. Pointing to that space on one of the satellite photos, Ruoff asked if he had seen Munyenyezi writing down Tutsis’ names from there. Rutaganda said he had.
When Capin again questioned the witness, he asked Rutaganda whether he had moved around the school compound and been in spaces where the roadblock was more easily seen.
The man agreed that was the case.
Correction: This story has been updated to include Assistant U.S. Attorney John Capin’s correct title.