By Sue MontgomeryMontreal Gazette
March 25, 2007
When Desire Munyaneza claimed refugee status in Montreal in 1997, little did he know that a decade later he'd be making Canadian history, albeit not in a desirable way. The father of two young children, who comes from a wealthy business family in Rwanda, is the first person to be charged under Canada's seven-year-old Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes Act, having allegedly murdered civilians, raped several women and pillaged during his country's 1994 genocide.
His trial gets underway this morning in Quebec Superior Court at the Montreal courthouse where all parties right up to the judge are dealing with an untested law. "It's a humongous trial in unchartered waters," said Richard Perras, one of three defence lawyers working on the case. "It has been a major enterprise to organize this." Indeed, the RCMP have been on Munyaneza's tail since the War Crimes Unit in Ottawa was tipped off in 1999. Their investigation has taken them across Canada, to Europe and to Rwanda several times. In January, a commission of 17 people, including three prosecutors, three defence lawyers, a judge and support staff, spent six weeks in the Rwandan capital of Kigali interviewing 14 witnesses who are either in detention or ill, and therefore unable to make it to Montreal for the trial.
Another 13 witnesses are to be flown to Canada to testify. Because of the increasing number of violent reprisals against witnesses testifying at the Rwandan community courts, known as gacaca, their identity is top secret. Only the accused, the prosecutors, the defence and the judge will know their real names - they'll be referred to by letters and numbers, and will testify behind a screen. Among the witnesses on the Crown's list is Senator Romeo Dallaire, who was in charge of the much-criticized United Nations forces in Rwanda during the genocide. The cost to taxpayers will be enormous, but Gerry Caplan, an expert on the Rwandan genocide, said that seems like a small price to pay for justice. By using the new law, he said, Canada is sending a message to the world that perpetrators can't hide out here, and at the same time is assuaging Western guilt about not having done enough to prevent or stop the genocide, in which close to a million of the country's Tutsis and politically moderate Hutus were systematically slaughtered in the span of 100 days.
Munyaneza, who turned 40 on New Year's Eve, was arrested October 19, 2005, as he left his Toronto home. He was transported to Montreal, where he was arraigned the next day on seven counts, including two of genocide, two of crimes against humanity and three of war crimes - all of which carry a life sentence. His trial will be before a judge only.
Munyaneza's initial refugee claim was dismissed on Sept. 20, 2000, and twice again on appeal. He was never given notice of his pending deportation, and so continued living freely in Canada. And if he's convicted, he'll serve his entire sentence here. His Toronto lawyer, Laurence Cohen, is convinced his client will be acquitted, especially after the testimony heard recently in Rwanda. The Crown obviously thinks otherwise. "We wouldn't have laid charges if we weren't confident and if there wasn't a probability of a conviction," said Richard Roy, one of three Crown prosecutors working on the case and the person who signed the indictment. "In our case, there is more than ample evidence for a conviction."
More Information on Universal Jurisdiction
More Information on the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda