U.S. Hosted Alleged Rwandan War Criminal for Military Visit

How a Rwandan captain indicted for war crimes ended up on a government-approved tour of the U.S., and what it says about our relationship with the international justice system, and with Rwanda


             The great hall of the U.S. Army base and military staff college at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where officials say they recently received Justus Majyambere, a Rwandan military officer who is wanted on charges for alleged war crimes / Wikimedia Commons

In late May, a handful of modestly sourced news accounts, few of them in English, reported that a Rwandan military official had been arrested in the United States, possibly even in Washington, DC, for alleged war crimes committed during the 1990s -- only to re-appear in his home country a few days later. The truth of what happened would turn out to be far more complicated and surprising. An investigation by TheAtlantic.com reveals that the Rwandan official, who is currently under international indictment for the suspected killing of Spanish non-government organization (NGO) employees in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, visited a U.S. military facility while on official business for the Rwandan government, and with the specific permission of the U.S. government. Though it's still unclear whether he was actually arrested or just briefly detained while entering the United States, the case exposes the complexity of a U.S.-Rwandan relationship in which human rights and strategic interests are coming into increasing conflict. It also underscores how little reach international law has within U.S. borders, at times compromising the possibility of bringing suspected war criminals to justice.

According to multiple European media reports, including a May 25 article in Spain's El Pais newspaper, Justus Majyambere, a major in the Rwandan Defense Forces, was arrested during a visit to the United States. In 2008, Majyambere had been indicted in absentia in Spain for his alleged role in the killing of nine Spanish NGO workers in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo in the years following the 1994 Rwandan ethnic genocide.

Since the genocide ended and rebel leader Paul Kagame took over as president, a post he has now held for 11 years, Rwanda and the United States have enjoyed close relations. Kagame's Rwanda is often described as the most politically stable nation in central Africa; for a time, Kagame himself was seen as a potential savior for a region riven with conflict. But Kagame's human rights record has come under increasing scrutiny, particularly after his purported 93 percent victory in last year's presidential election. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton conspicuously avoided Rwanda during both of her trips to Africa.

The arrest of a Rwandan government official on ostensibly friendly foreign soil would have dealt a blow to the U.S.-Rwanda relationship. The Rwandan government is extremely sensitive about the international justice system. A number of Rwandan officials are currently under foreign indictments, making travel for them difficult and undermining the government's international legitimacy. Many, including Kagame himself, were indicted in absentia in France in 2006, an incident that imploded relations between the two countries.

For Spain, the stakes are hardly lower. According to Leonardo Marcos, an official at the Spanish embassy in Washington, DC, Majyambere is currently under an Interpol "red notice," a worldwide bulletin that is roughly equivalent to an arrest warrant in much of the European Union, but is treated with less authority in the United States. As far as Spain is concerned, Majyambere is a fugitive from justice, and a war criminal responsible for the murder of Spanish citizens.

A few days after the initial reports of Majyambere's arrest, the story died. It wasn't mentioned in a single American newspaper. In light of Rwandan denials and a lack of official confirmation of Majyambere's arrest, the story seemed more like an online rumor than cause for a diplomatic showdown between the U.S., Spain, and Rwanda. Even Marcos said that the Spanish government's official position on the matter is that the media reports are a case of mistaken identity. "Maybe the American police detained or arrested somebody with a similar or the same name," said Marcos. "But this person, Justus Majyambere, has been not arrested yet."

Even for the Spanish embassy, reports of Majyambere's arrest are based on unsubstantiated reports -- little more than rumors. But those rumors have turned out to be grounded in fact. According to a memo from Spain's National Central Bureau of Interpol to Spanish Judge Fernando Andreu, on May 15, the U.S. Central Bureau of Interpol sent an urgent message to their Spanish counterparts. Somewhere in the United States, border police had run a background check on an individual suspected of "illegal immigration." The check returned Majyambere's red notice, producing a flurry of communication between Spain's Interpol office and Judge Andreu, whose court had indicted Majyambere, along with 39 other Rwandan military officers, in 2008.

Interpol told Andreu that the U.S. had detained an individual named Justus Mayambere, who was born in Mbarara, Uganda in 1966. According to Jordi Palou-Rognoni, a Spanish lawyer who was instrumental in pushing for the 2008 indictments, Andreu later intimated to the Americans that they had, in fact, detained an individual who his court had indicted three years earlier. "The Judge confirmed the international arrest warrant to the U.S. authorities," Rognoni said in an email, "and that [Majyambere] was active under a red code (confirming the suspect was born in 1966 in Mbarara, Uganda)."

Yet Rognoni added that Spanish officials lacked a photograph of the suspect. The letter from Interpol to Andreu, obtained by TheAtlantic.com, expressed a certain muted frustration at the U.S. authorities. "Despite what has been stated," the letter reads, "the American authorities can not confirm that this person came to their country." In any event, a Rwandan radio station in Kigali reported on May 25 that Majyambere had safely returned to Rwanda.

None of the officials who spoke on or off the record for this article have been able to confirm whether the person detained on May 15 was in fact Majyambere. But a body of circumstantial evidence strongly suggests that he was. Military officials in both the United States and Rwanda and law enforcement officials in the U.S. confirm that Majyambere did in fact enter the United States on May 15. He had left Rwanda the previous day, later boarding a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit.

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Armin Rosen is a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Global channel.

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