Ruling expected in landmark Rwandan war crimes case

A Quebec judge will hand down a verdict Friday in a groundbreaking war crimes trial that has been closely watched for more than two years by Rwandan-Canadians and international law experts.

Désiré Munyaneza, a Hutu, stood trial in Montreal on alleged war crimes

A Quebec judge will hand down a decision Friday in a groundbreaking war crimes trial that has been closely watched for more than two years by Rwandan-Canadians and international law experts.

Désiré Munyaneza, a 42-year-old father of two, is accused of murdering and raping civilians during the 1994 Rwandan genocide, and of leading attacks against ethnic Tutsis at the National University of Rwanda.

Désiré Munyaneza faces life in prison if found guilty. ((CBC))

He faces seven charges related to genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes under Canadian law for his alleged role in several incidents that took place around Butare, Rwanda during the 1994 genocide, when nearly 800,000 minority Tutsis and moderate Hutus were murdered.

If convicted, Munyaneza will become the first person to be found guilty under Canada's Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes Act, and faces life in prison.

Rwandan-Canadians are hoping Canada's court system will find Munyaneza guilty, a ruling they say would send a strong message about atrocities committed in their home country.

"I really honestly don't have any doubt about what he has done, and what he has participated in," said Jean-Paul Nyilinkwaya, a Rwandan now living in Montreal who went to high school with Munyaneza and knew him well.

But "we have to accept whatever [ruling] comes," said Nyilinkwaya in an interview with CBC. "We know the system cannot be 100 per cent perfect."

The case's complexity has posed a number of challenges for Crown prosecutors, defence lawyers, and Quebec Superior Court Judge André Denis, who oversaw two years of legal proceedings held on three continents.

And the burden of proof is great under Canada's war crimes law, said Bruce Broomhall, an international criminal law professor at the University of Quebec in Montreal (UQÀM).

Quebec Superior Court judge André Denis has to be satisfied "beyond a reasonable doubt, not just that Désiré Munyaneza killed or raped, or aided or abetted killing or raping, but that he did so intending that the Tutsis be wiped out," Broomhall told the CBC. 

Munyaneza was arrested in 2005 in his suburban Toronto home, where he had been living with his wife and two children, after immigrating to Canada as a refugee hopeful. His request for refugee status was turned down.

Trial features wide range of witnesses

More than 60 witnesses were called to testify at Munyaneza's two-year trial in Montreal, including genocide survivors, international aid workers and Canadian Senator Roméo Dallaire, who led the ill-fated UN mission in Rwanda in 1993-1994.

Many Rwandans travelled from the east-central African country to Montreal to testify, and did so behind screens or closed doors under the cloak of anonymity because of concerns about their personal safety.

The legal team overseeing proceedings travelled to Europe and Rwanda as well to hear testimony from witnesses who couldn't make the trip. Compiling that testimony introduced a "new level of complexity" to the trial, said law professor Bruce Broomhall.

"There were issues of translation, different cultural frames," he said.

"Witneses are looking at the world through different eyes, than people here in Canada, and that creates a whole new challenge for justice to really understand what the witness is saying, how they are interpreting the question, and then to weigh the credibility of the witness, when you aren't necessarily familiar with the cultural norms."

Witness testimony was crucial in this case to establishing that a genocide actually took place in Rwanda, said Broomhall.

"It's not easy [to prove genocide]. In Rwanda, unlike in Cambodia or Nazi Germany, the leaders didn't leave an enormous paper trail," he said. "That means witness testimony is essential. And 15 years later, that poses problems in itself."

Detailed picture of Rwandan atrocities

Jean-Paul Nyilinkwaya, who lost 70 relatives in the genocide, including his father, attended the Munyaneza trial whenever he could get time off from his job in Montreal.

He applauded the witnesses' courage in agreeing to testify. "They were going through a lot of hardship to be here, and deliver the testimony," he said.

Jean-Paul Nyilinkwaya, a Rwandan-Montrealer, knew Munyaneza in high school. ((CBC))

"Every single time I get a chance to talk to a survivor, you always learn something new. Every single person witnessed something different, and went through something different.

"If you have 10 people watch the same accident in front of them, every single one of them is going to tell the story from a different angle. And so the more you hear from every witness, every survivor, your picture of the genocide gets more complete," sais Nyilinkwaya. 

Munyaneza's trial will set the legal framework for future prosecutions in Canada, whether he's convicted or acquitted, said Broomhall. "What we want to see is a legal framework to make these prosecutions viable in Canada, so Canada can do its part in ending impunity for these atrocious crimes," he said.

Canada has a moral and ethical obligation to do so, Broomhall added. "It needs to be emphasized — the immigration remedies, the ability to deport somebody, are just not an adequate answer in many cases [of alleged war crimes committed in foreign countries]" he said. 

The cost of Munyaneza's trial — estimated at more than $1.6 million — is a factor that will likely be taken into account when future prosecutions are considered.

"It might be that we conclude that it's very expensive and very difficult, but nevertheless in the rare case it will be justified," said  René Provost, director of McGill's Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism, in an interview with The Canadian Press.

If nothing else, the trial helped people "remember" the genocide, said Jean-Paul Nyilinkwaya. 

"What happens is that the world becomes a whole lot smaller for people considering committing these crimes in the future," he said. "The more countries that put these laws in practice, the more deterrent it will be."

With files from The Canadian Press