Desiré Munyaneza is shown in a 2005 court sketch. ((CBC))

A Rwandan man on trial for war crimes for his alleged role in that country's 1994 genocide has been attacked and beaten in his Montreal jail cell.

Desiré Munyaneza's trial has been postponed while he recovers from a severe beating that left him in a wheelchair with head wounds, a broken nose, swollen eyes and facial slashes.

Munyaneza's Toronto-based defence lawyer, Lawrence Cohen, said his client is lucky to be alive after being assaulted Wednesday night.

The former Rwandan professor was attacked in his semi-private prison wing after a new prisoner was brought into the east-end Montreal detention centre, Cohen told CBC.

The isolated wing contains two cells and a shared common area with a television. According to Cohen, the new prisoner told Munyaneza he's been following the trial's coverage in the newspapers.

The attack is alarming, Cohen said.

"It's obviously an extremely troubling situation, in which we can't even ensure the security of a prisoner, of a person who is presumed innocent.

"And this is supposed to be a show case for Canada. It's an embarrassment, that's what it is."

Munyaneza showed up for his trial Thursday morning in a wheelchair with his swollen eyes shut and his head hanging down.

Quebec Superior Court Justice André Denis, who is trying the case, called the situation intolerable and unacceptable, and said the trial was postponed until Monday.

But Cohen said the resumption of the trialwill ultimately depend on Munyaneza's condition.

"He was almost killed last night, so he has to be in the proper mental and physical state to stand trial," Cohen told reporters.

Munyaneza's Montreal lawyer, Richard Parras, said he would wait and see how his client fared over the weekend.

"He was seriously beaten, to the point that he is absolutely not in a state to follow a process," Parras said.

Lawyers call for greater security

Quebec provincial police said the prison called them Wednesday night to report an inmate beating, but they wouldn't confirm it was Munyaneza.

Investigators will meet with the victim to determine whether he'll press charges, police spokeswoman Isabelle Gendron said.

Munyaneza's lawyers called for greater security at the detention centre to ensure their client's safety.

"In jails, people get beaten up. I understand that," Cohen said. "The question is, given the magnitude of this trial, the seriousness of the charges against Mr. Munyaneza, you would think that the authorities would be cognizant of all those issues."

Munyaneza faces seven charges, including genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, under Canada's War Crimes Act, adopted in 2000.

He's accused of ordering and participating in rapes and murders of Tutsis in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide.

Munyaneza came to Canada in 1997 and filed a refugee claim, which was rejected three years later.The RCMP arrested himin October 2005 in Toronto, where he had been living with his wife and children.

With files from the Canadian Press