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

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.

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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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