Did This New Hampshire Woman Take Part in the Rwandan Genocide?

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She came to America as a victim and was later arrested as a perpetrator. To decide her fate, a New England jury has to make sense of conflicting stories from half a world away.

munyenyezi-top2.jpgBeatrice Munyenyezi leaves the Concord courthouse after her first trial last April. (AP Images)

The Wednesday before last, while afternoon temperatures reached the mid-80s seven time zones away in Rwanda, 12 New Hampshire jurors and four alternates walked on snow-covered sidewalks to the U.S. District Courthouse in Concord, where they would hear the case of Rwandan-born Beatrice Munyenyezi.

Arriving individually, the 16 New Englanders shuffled through a security checkpoint and ascended to the granite building's third floor. That floor's main hallway is decorated in epic American style, including the famous scene of General George Washington crossing the Delaware and words penned in 1776 by Thomas Paine, author of "Common Sense." Nearby, there is also a somber painting of Abraham Lincoln.

As the jurors filed from a back hallway into Courtroom Number 5, there were hints of the cultural collision that soon would unfold before them. An enlargement on a poster board included the French text of Munyenyezi's Rwandan identification card from two decades ago. An enlarged satellite photo taken during the 1994 genocide showed an aerial view of the main street in the southern city of Butare. And a bright shirt piled atop a box of documents burst with the blue, red, green and yellow colors of the ruling party that orchestrated the violence.

The jurors were likely the only people in the crowded, cavernous room who did not know the incredible story that had been told in the very same courtroom during a first trial 12 months before. Assistant U.S. Attorney John Capin had opened the government's case with an emotional account of a Rwandan woman named Esperance, who had seen friends and family murdered during the genocide. Munyenyezi, Capin had said, had played an "active and enthusiastic" role in such atrocities. Witnesses flown from Rwanda testified that Munyenyezi shot a nun in the head, fed men hungry from hours of raping women, and more.

At the retrial, neither the prosecution nor  defense aimed to bridge the cultural divide. Each side, in its own way, sought to exploit it.

But Munyenyezi's attorneys had countered with contradictory accounts that those witnesses had presented at prior genocide trials in Rwanda and at an international court. Courtroom interpretations between Kinyarwanda and English had confounded things, and the jury could not reach a unanimous verdict. Judge Steven McAuliffe had declared a mistrial. (In a court order months later, he wrote that primary witnesses' credibility had been "effectively impeached.")

So as these new jurors, notebooks in hand, settled into black leather swivel chairs for the retrial, prosecutors were ready to tell a much simpler story about Munyenyezi. An entirely new group of Rwandan witnesses would deliver new accusations. And prosecutors would begin opening statements not with chaotic scenes, but with certainty: the image of a new victim - the very nation the jurors called home - under attack by a manipulative foreigner. At 9:37 a.m., Assistant U.S. Attorney Aloke Chakravarty turned to the jury and began, in a tone at once gentle and arrogant, "The United States of America is the envy of the world."

***

Beatrice Munyenyezi and her three children came to New Hampshire in 1998, arriving as refugees from the genocide that claimed as many as one million lives. But Munyenyezi's connections to Rwanda were complicated: In 1997, her husband, Arsene Shalom Ntahobali, and her mother-in-law, Pauline Nyiramasuhuko, had been charged with crimes against humanity for their role in the violence. Though she had settled in Manchester, New Hampshire, and become a U.S. citizen in 2003, Munyenyezi testified in her husband's defense before an international tribunal in 2006. In 2010, she was arrested by U.S. authorities in New Hampshire, charged with immigration fraud, and held without bail in the Strafford County Jail.

When Munyenyezi's case first came to court, it presented New England jurors with a unique set of cultural challenges. But at the retrial, neither the prosecution nor defense aimed to bridge the distance between Rwanda and the United States. Each side, in its own way, sought to exploit it.

In Chakravarty's opening arguments at the retrial, he strove to convince the jury that Munyenyezi had earned her refugee status, and then U.S. citizenship, under false pretenses. He accused her of denying two vital facts from her past-- that she had been politically active before the genocide, wearing the brightly colored fabric of the Rwandan ruling party, and that she had stood at a roadblock in front of her family's hotel and singled out Tutsis for persecution.

Munyenyezi has consistently denied any political affiliations in Rwanda or involvement in the genocide. Thirty-seven minutes after Chakravarty began, Defense Attorney David Ruoff rose to deliver his opening statement. Ruoff and his legal partner Mark Howard knew the Rwandans accusing Munyenyezi in the retrial had not testified much elsewhere. So they had decided to cast reasonable doubt on all of Rwanda.

"You don't have to take these witnesses at their word," Ruoff told the jury. "And given where they're coming from, and what they'll go back to, you should not." Ruoff told the jury about the authoritarian government of President Paul Kagame, the former military commander who led the rebel forces that ended the genocide. He described Kagame as an autocrat who uses the genocide as a political tool to keep power.

While he acknowledged that Munyenyezi's husband and mother had been indicted on genocide charges, he described Munyenyezi as a homebound mother who had spent the genocide months inside the family hotel caring for an infant daughter while pregnant with twins. The fact that Ntahobali and Nyiramasuhuko were convicted of crimes against humanity in 2011 is not allowed to be mentioned in Munyenyezi's trial. But each is serving a life sentence -- Ntahobali for committing murder and rape while leading a ruthless militia, Nyiramasuhuko for helping to organize the genocide, including systematic rape, as a cabinet minister in the Rwandan government.

Ruoff also held out a copy of Leave None to Tell the Story, a definitive account of the genocide written in part by one of the prosecution's expert witnesses. The book mentions Ntahobali and Nyiramasuhuko and their acts of genocide. It does not mention Munyenyezi.

As he continued, Ruoff painted Munyenyezi's 2010 indictment as part of an uncertain conspiracy that reached from the United States to Rwanda. After all, he pointed out, Munyenyezi was never accused of anything by anyone during more than a decade of investigations about Butare, the Hotel Ihuriro, and a roadblock that stood before it. After making numerous trips to Rwanda, how were U.S. investigators only now able to find eight "new perfect witnesses" for this trial? He urged the jury to be more skeptical of the accounts the Rwandans would give.

"They did what you can't," Ruoff said of the U.S. investigators and prosecutors. "[They] let their emotions cloud their judgment."

He told the American jurors that only they could guarantee justice.

"One of the greatest protections in our country," Ruoff said, "is that this is not a Rwandan kangaroo court."

***

During the two weeks of testimony that followed, Munyenyezi, 43, sat quietly at the defense table, often staring ahead into the middle distance. She dressed sharply and wore black-framed glasses. On some days, her hair was pulled back tight. When Timothy Longman, an expert on the Rwandan genocide called to testify by the prosecution, described Ntahobali as a "vicious leader of the killing crews," Munyenyezi discreetly wiped tears from her eyes.

During some courtroom recesses she wandered into the main hallway, near the painting of Lincoln. There, on the first days of the retrial, she stood with her three daughters - the oldest in college, the twins now high school seniors - and a brother, Jean-Marie Higiro. Higiro, who earned a Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin in the 1980s, was an opposition member of the Rwandan government when President Juvenal Habyarimana's plane was shot down over Kigale on April 6, 1994. That event triggered the genocide, and Higiro and his family were shuttled to safety in neighboring Burundi in a convoy flying U.S. flags.

Higiro is now a tenured professor of communication in western Massachusetts, but he also is a political leader who has been affiliated with Rwandan rebel groups in the Congo. He is a critic of the Kagame government, and he has said that Munyenyezi and another sister, Prudence Kantengwa, who was convicted of immigration fraud in Boston last year, are being targeted because of his activities.

Back in the courtroom, prosecutors called three types of witnesses against Munyenyezi: experts on the genocide, who gave details of the violence; residents of Butare, who said they saw Munyenyezi do certain things before and during the genocide; and U.S. government officials, who explained the immigration process and Munyenyezi's statements while seeking refugee status in 1995 and gaining U.S. citizenship in 2003.

This last group of witnesses detailed how Munyenyezi consistently answered "no" when asked on forms whether she had committed any crimes in Rwanda, or persecuted anyone based on their ethnicity. Officials emphasized that the U.S. immigration process relies heavily on trust, as the government doesn't have the resources to fact-check all applications. "The system is really built around answers to these questions being honest," said Donald Heflin, director of the Visa Office for the U.S. Department of State.

Another immigration official, Maurice Violo, told the jury in great detail how in 2003 Munyenyezi again answered "no" to questions on her naturalization application asking whether she had ever been affiliated with a political party, or committed a crime. But on the same form, she again listed that her husband was Ntahobali. She gave his location as "Arusha, Tanzania," home to the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. She told Violo about trips she'd made to Kenya and Tanzania.

Defense Attorney Mark Howard challenged Violo about why he didn't inquire about who Ntahobali was or what he was doing in Tanzania. "She gave you the information," Howard said. "All you had to do was compare it to what else is known about her."

Violo, visibly agitated, told Howard that his main focus was to ask the list of questions to Munyenyezi, and assess whether she could speak English and score at least 6 out of 10 on a citizenship quiz. He said he relied on prior approvals of applications for refugee status and permanent residence. "All these questions you're asking right here," he told Howard, "should have been addressed at the refugee process."

Howard returned to the heart of the matter: What if Munyenyezi had not been lying when she said she had not been politically affiliated or committed any crimes in Rwanda? "If 'no' is a truthful answer," Howard said to Violo, "then we're good to go."

***

On the second day of testimony, prosecutors called their first witness from Rwanda. This time, it was a man named Thierry Sebaganwa, who said he had seen Munyenyezi wearing colors of the ruling MRND political party at a rally in a soccer stadium in 1993. The next witness, Bruno Nzeyimana, said that while serving as a soldier, he had passed through a roadblock in front of the Hotel Ihuriro. Nzeyimana said that he did not know Munyenyezi, but that his friend Pascal had greeted a woman at the roadblock who responded to the name Beatrice. That woman had checked his identification card, Nzeyimana said. Consolee Mukeshimana, a woman who claimed to be related to Munyenyezi through marriage, testified that she had been detained at the roadblock and then watched as Minyenyezi checked identification cards and singled out more Tutsis to be sent for execution.

Defense attorneys questioned the witnesses on how U.S. investigators had tracked them down. And hoping to find inconsistencies, attorneys probed the details each witness had given to investigators during meetings in Rwanda.

Each exchange passed through one of four courtroom interpreters, who relayed words spoken in English to Kinyarwanda, and Kinyarwanda to English. Interpreters took turns standing alongside the witness stand, and each had a different manner of working. A tall woman with close-cropped hair smiled broadly at attorneys and witnesses, leaning in to converse further with a witness if confusion arose. A somber man in a gray suit cast a stoic gaze straight ahead, raising a rigid hand in front of his chest if he wanted one party or another to pause or repeat.

Often these exchanges got tangled. Chakravarty spent more than forty minutes questioning Richard Kamanzi, a Butare resident who said he saw Beatrice wearing an MRND shirt before the genocide. At one point, as the prosecutor tried to get Kamanzi to locate his home and a nearby mosque on the satellite photo, Kamanzi said, "I don't understand." McAuliffe intervened. "You've taken eight shots at it," the judge said to Chakravarty. "Let's move on."

On the fifth day, after dismissing the jury, McAuliffe chastised the prosecution for asking witnesses too many questions about Munyenyezi's husband, Shalom Ntahobali. "Shalom is not on trial here," McAuliffe told prosecutors. "You don't seem to recognize that."

A few days earlier, confusion had already reached a gentle crescendo at the close of testimony by Nzeyimana, who said he had passed a woman who answered to the name Beatrice at the roadblock. Nzeyimana, 53, maintained a pensive air no matter the question, often pausing for four or five seconds before affirming something he'd already said. On cross-examination, Ruoff asked whether Nzeyimana had mentioned his friend Pascal in his first meeting with U.S. investigators. On re-direct, Chakravarty asked him to explain when he first mentioned Munyenyezi. The exchange halted along, as Nzeyimana confirmed elements of his earlier accounts. Finally, he spread his hands open before him. He turned his gaze from Chakravarty to the jury, as though to emphasize the point he had made at the outset.

"I didn't know Beatrice," he said. "I didn't know her."

***

Last Friday, a line of visitors crowded the security checkpoint on the first floor of the courthouse. A routine swearing-in of new citizens was about to take place in Courtroom 3, just down the hall from the Munyenyezi retrial.

Inside Courtroom 5, defense attorneys called two Rwandans to testify on Munyenyezi's behalf. Gilbert Hitimana, a Tutsi who was related to Munyenyezi's father-in-law, Maurice Ntahobali, said that the family had given him shelter in the Hotel Ihuriro during the genocide. Munyenyezi, he said, had stayed indoors and in an enclosed yard, caring for her baby and resting. Marie Alice Ahishakiye, who worked as a cook in the hotel, said she had only seen Munyenyezi inside the hotel compound, supervising the kitchen staff and tending her baby.

Prosecutors challenged these witnesses' claims that they had not seen or heard any signs of all the documented atrocities that occurred near the Hotel Ihuriro during that time. And they questioned the witnesses to demonstrate that they did not know what Munyenyezi had been doing doing all of the time.

Ahishakiye was still on the stand when McAuliffe ordered a mid-morning break. In the main hallway outside the courtroom, I met a lawyer who had come to New Hampshire to observe the trial. She was considering writing an article about the case in a law journal.

As we talked, I saw that Munyenyezi was standing only a few feet from us. She had been held without bail for nearly two years in a county jail until last year's mistrial, and had been released to house arrest, pending the retrial verdict. She stood quietly.

The lawyer told me she was curious about the treatment of political "participation." How would McAuliffe write his instructions to the jury? Would they be told that wearing the clothing of a political party was to be considered as political affiliation?

Such factors would influence the jury's application of American law. But before that, the New Englanders would have to weigh the certainty of the Kinyardwanda words of accusation and defense they'd heard about Munyenyezi. Would jurors be able to agree that amid the translation of time and culture in the New Hampshire courtroom some truth had been established beyond a reasonable doubt?

Attorneys are scheduled to make their closing arguments today. Jurors may deliver a verdict as early as tomorrow.

Update: On Thursday, February 21, the jury found Munyenyezi guilty. She was immediately stripped of her U.S. citizenship and taken into custody. Sentencing has been set for June. Her attorneys have said they plan to appeal.

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Tom Haines is a journalist and an assistant professor of English at the University of New Hampshire.

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