Chapter 14: A wandering Rwandan, banished from his homeland
While a tall white woman
in an ermine cape
Looked at the blacks and
Thought of rape.
Jean-Paul Akayesu was the first man in history to be convicted by an International Criminal Tribunal of genocide, of rape and other crimes against humanity, yet he vehemently - and convincingly - proclaims his innocence. The former burgomaster of Taba Commune located some 25 kilometres west of Kigali is purging a life sentence in the Maison centrale d’arrêt, in Bamako, the capital city of Mali. I visited Jean-Paul Akayesu for five days in November 2002. He is imprisoned with three other Rwandans: Alfred Musema-Uwimana, an agronomist and engineer, Clément Kayishema, a surgeon, and Obed Ruzindana, a merchant. They have been in Bamako since they were transferred from the United Nations prison in Arusha, Tanzania, in December 2001.
Though it may be an oxymoron, the Maison centrale d’arrêt in Bamako is a humane prison. Unlike prisons in countries with a punitive culture like Canada and the United States, the idea of sensorial deprivation is non-existent. Prisoners feel the elements, the wind, the heat and the rain. It is also more humane because Mali has no capital punishment. People never serve more than fifteen years in prison. It would seem that Malians believe in rehabilitation. Prisoners generally appear healthy and well. Fights are rare and prison guards are not known to push prisoners around. Visitors are received courteously. Though Bamako is dustier, more expensive and much larger than when I last visited the city in 1974, I still felt safer, even in the prison, than I do in some large American cities.
What’s more, the Malians do not seem to have succumbed to the demonization of Rwandan Hutus that has made them into monsters in Western public opinion.
The decision to send sentenced prisoners to Mali was made by the Clerk’s Office at the ICTR in Arusha. Three other countries, Sweden, Belgium and Norway, had offered to hold the prisoners, but the Clerk refused, saying that since they were African they should be imprisoned in Africa.
The decision might initially appear to reflect a real sensitivity towards Africans. After all, Mali and Rwanda are two hot countries located near the Equator. In terms of being uprooted, though, sending Rwandans to prison in Mali is comparable to locking up an Inuit from Nunavut in Arizona. Jean-Paul Akayesu found the transfer very difficult: “In May and June, just before the rainy season, I thought the heat was going to kill me.” Rwanda is located on a high plateau and the temperature is generally between 10 and 25°C, whereas in Mali, even in the “cool” season, the temperature often goes up to 35 or 40°C. Rwanda is always green, Mali is almost always dry and dusty. Rwanda is Christian, Mali is Muslim.
For prisoners who are convinced of their innocence, the worst problem is the distance from their families and the isolation that makes communication with the outside world almost impossible. When I visited Jean-Paul Akayesu in November 2002, I was only his second visitor since he had arrived a year earlier. “When the Tribunal sent us to Mali,” he told me, “they just wanted to make us disappear from the news. If we were in Europe or in North America, we wouldn’t be isolated. In those places, we would have telephones, visitors, and all the means of communications. Here travelling is difficult and expensive. How can we make our cases known from here? How can we ever hope to reopen our cases?”
“It’s banishment to the penal colony all over again,” wrote his fellow prisoner Alfred Musema in a moving open letter written the day after he was “deported to the unknown”. His open letter of course was never published. “Unjustly sentenced to life in prison is the same as being sentenced to a long slow death. While I was writing ‘Courage!’, they were writing ‘Silence! You’re going to die, slowly.’”
Banishing prisoners to Mali is the logical follow-up to the decision to put the Tribunal in Arusha, Tanzania. The man who made that initial decision, former UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, now regrets it. “The original idea was to put the Tribunal in The Hague,” he told me in an interview. “I said no. It was an African problem. Setting up the tribunal in Arusha was a simple question of dignity. That is why I chose Arusha. In fact it was a mistake, my mistake. To create a tribunal, you need a complete background: a cultural background, a legal background, media facilities and more. They all contribute to a tribunal’s work. Arusha had none of this. It was empty. And it is considered to be marginal. The Tribunal should have been created in a big city that would take an interest in it. The psychological support of a big city, its cultural infrastructure is necessary for the institution, for the judges, the lawyers, the media.”
“And what about the accused and the convicted?” I asked the former Secretary General.
“For everybody,” he replied. “None of us, jurists included, had given any thought to the parallel and para-legal aspects, such as political and material questions. So we convict somebody. Where is he to serve his sentence? Who is responsible for overseeing his imprisonment? Why? None of this has been studied seriously.”
Boutros-Ghali’s candour is admirable and greatly appreciated. Nonetheless, it comes a little late for Jean-Paul Akayesu who is sentenced to life virtually incommunicado in a remote jail, while his name and his case are cited in all the major North American and European media and used in all Western law faculties and international studies departments.
Jean-Paul Akayesu was shocked when I showed him the front page of the New York Times Magazine of September 15, 2002, with a doctored photo of the only woman held by the ICTR, Pauline Nyiramasuhuko, and the screaming title The Minister of Rape. When he saw the reference to his own conviction, that the Times article described as a breakthrough in international law, he shook his head in protest and said, “That’s all they wanted! The Tribunal desperately needed a precedent and jurisprudence on which they could build and develop international law. I wasn’t even accused of rape, only of being burgomaster during a time when rapes were supposed to have been committed near the Taba commune office.”
On the question of rape, Akayesu is categorical. “There were no rapes in my commune. I would have heard about them. And I declared that under oath before the Tribunal in the name of God almighty. Witness J. J. 125 could not even identify me, even though she had told the Prosecutor that she would be able to recognize me.”
The story of how Jean-Paul Akayesu came to be charged with rape is itself mind-boggling. “I was in the middle of my trial in March 1997 when Hilary Clinton showed up in Arusha during her tour of Africa. My trial was interrupted for her visit. Hilary Clinton concluded her speech by offering the Tribunal US$600,000 if it introduced rape charges in the trails in Arusha. In June 1997, the Prosecutor Pierre-Richard Prosper, who was working under Chief Prosecutor Louise Arbour, had my indictment amended to include rape, even though he had already completed his case against me. This was all done despite the fact that nobody had talked about rape before my trial began.”
In addition to Hilary Clinton, an important American feminist organization requested the right to intervene as an Amicus Curiae or friend of the court. That request further pressured the tribunal to convict people of rape.
The order of these events is important to understand why and how the rape charges were introduced in the Arusha trials. Two prosecution witnesses against Jean-Paul Akayesu had made sworn statements to the prosecutor during investigations prior to his indictment and arrest. The prosecutor disclosed the statements to defence counsel as required. Neither statement mentioned anything about rape. In other words, the witnesses met the prosecutor’s investigators in the Rwandan commune of Taba in November 1995. One witness made charges against Burgomaster Akayesu, but made no mention of women being raped. She arrived in Arusha in 1997 when the issue of rape had become more important and added charges of rape, but only after having been sequestered with the prosecutor for two weeks. “Witness H was a former student of mine”, recalled Jean-Paul Akayesu. “The prosecutor said she was unable to appear for those two weeks because she was sick, but I know that it took that much time for them to convince her to testify that she herself had been raped.”
With time, proof of false testimony and fabrication of evidence has come to the fore. For example, the sworn statement of a Rwandan Tutsi from Taba, who had attended meetings during which false testimony was prepared to convict Akayesu, corroborates that before 1997 the issue of rape had not even been raised. “Sometime early in 1997, if I remember correctly, they began to talk about rape witnesses. Before that time, there was no talk about evidence of rape. Mr. Karanwa told me that there are widows and others who are easy to manipulate so that they will testify about rape.” 126 The Appeal Court in The Hague simply refused to receive witness B.B.B.’s statement that would have exonerated Jean-Paul Akayesu.
Ramsey Clark thinks that the people working for the Tribunal wanted to introduce rape charges in Akayesu’s case, and in all the others, to ingratiate themselves to those who funded the Tribunal in the United States, and especially Secretary of State Madeleine Albright for whom the Tribunal was to be a legacy. This interpretation concurs with the thoughts of Boutros Boutros-Ghali who complained about the Tribunal’s chronic lack of funds and its irrelevance in international public opinion. Nobody wanted to go there, and nobody was interested in the Tribunal. The solution was therefore to hype it more - to sex it up, as the British would say - by adding charges that would catch the eye of American public opinion.
Jean-Paul Akayesu’s conviction was little more than a formality. “It just takes one woman to come to court and declare ‘I was raped’ or ‘I saw somebody being raped’,” noted Akayesu. “There’s just no way to defend yourself against such accusations.” Akayesu’s complaints take on real meaning in light of declarations made by ICTR judge Madam Navanethem Pillay during a promotional tour of Canada in November 1997 before the defence began its case. On CBC radio, Judge Pillay declared that there were 200,000 victims of sexual violence in Rwanda as well as a political strategy of sexual violence against women. No evidence to this effect had been presented in court. She was only repeating the prosecutor’s declarations. What ever happened to the cornerstones of the legal system Judge Pillay belongs too, namely the presumption of innocence?
Where do the stories of rape come from? Is there any truth to them? Jean-Paul Akayesu answers straight-forwardly. “Intermarriage between Hutus and Tutsis was very common,” he told me. “You also have to realize that marriage in Rwanda is not the same as in the West. Two young people may decide one day that they are going to form a couple. They then go and see their parents who organize a wedding for them. A Tutsi girl could have been engaged to, or going out with, a Hutu boy. As the RPF army advanced, the couple would have fled with the rest of the population, first to southern Rwanda and then to neighbouring countries like the Congo. When the RPF won the war, they convinced the Tutsi girls to leave their husbands. A full-fledged campaign was developed to get those girls to accuse their fiancés of rape. Often the girls were already pregnant. When they gave birth, the RPF said that the new-born were the children of rape. Judging by the New York Times Magazine article (The Minister of Rape), it appears that they succeeded in demonizing us,” observed Akayesu.
For anybody who knows anything about the inextricable relationship between rape and race in the minds of white Americans, there is something dubious in all the horror stories told about the rape Rwandans were supposed to have committed. For the first time in world history, after centuries of slavery, racism and colonialism where sexual domination was an integral part of overall domination, an international criminal tribunal largely funded by the United States and urged on by the wife of a President from the US South, sentenced a man to life for rape as a war crime, and that man is an African, who claims to be innocent. Sadly, it brings to mind Billy Holiday’s Strange fruit, and the lynching of African Americans unjustly accused of rape.
In a 1987 essay on white America’s vendetta against African American men, Ishmael Reed wrote: “An audience of white and Asian feminists attending a rape awareness workshop held in Berkeley last October said that they imagined the ‘stereotypical’ rapist as black, until they were informed by Sallie Werson, a women’s center counselor, that seventy-five to eighty percent of rapists are white. 127
In a recently published book entitled Color of Rape, Gender and Race in Televisions Public Spheres, feminist author and professor Sujata Moorti, expands on the question and reaches similar troubling conclusions. 128 Moorti analyzes the manner in which the major American television networks deal with the subject of rape. Focusing on three highly publicized rape cases that occurred between 1989 and 1991 and the narrative that developed out of them, Sujata Moorti concludes that “the only consistent feature is the demonization of black masculinity”.
The author agrees with many other scholars who have shown that issues of rape and race are always entwined in American public discourse. Moorti contends that “anxieties about black sexuality continue to shape contemporary television representations. Consequently, the myths of the black male rapist, black male bestiality, and black female promiscuity inform the images of black women and men in rape narratives as well as the black male and female experience in the legal and criminal justice arenas.” 129 She also maintains that the racism that resulted in the famous 1931 unjust conviction for rape of the nine “Scotsboro Boys” still prevails today in media representation of rape. 130
Since her book appeared, her conclusions have become more significant. The group of young black men arrested, convicted and locked up for gang rape of the New York Central Park Jogger - one of the cases studied by Moorti - were all absolved of that crime when another man confessed the crime and DNA analysis corroborated his confession. The story had provoked hysteria throughout the United States. Pundits, politicians and the general public let their imaginations run wild as they used that rape case to expound on black male violence in inner city America. Jungle imagery and vocabulary were of course used to make the case.
We now know that that’s not what happened and that the New York Police had obtained forced confessions. The young men are all innocent and are suing for damages. But who can erase the horrible demonization of African American men that went on for more than ten years?
The way the media dealt with that case that eventually took an unpredictable turn reinforces one of the main conclusions Sujata Moorti reaches in her book. The media narrative of rape cases make no attempt to understand the rape phenomenon nor to grasp the raped woman’s situation. The raped woman “becomes a symbolic cause to discuss other social issues” or to express obsessions. The Central Park Jogger case provided excellent material for people to complain about black-male ghetto violence.
This is the very American context in which the introduction of rape charges in Jean-Paul Akayesu’s case, qualified by the New York Times as “the legal breakthrough”, should be understood. As was the case with the Central Park jogger, as was the case with the “Scotsboro boys”, the rape stories from the Rwandan tragedy become a symbolic cause to discuss a supposed African culture of violence and oppression - the underlying theme being Western/white moral superiority - at a time when the same Western powers, and particularly the United States, want to legitimate their direct control over African resources and African countries.
The September 2002 New York Times Magazine front-page feature entitled The Minister Of Rape is the most glaring example of the rape story distortions. 131 Ten pages of text complete with photos tell the story with ample commentary by American anthropologists, jurists and psychiatrists all of whom are grimly astonished by the incomprehensible dark and evil nature of the crimes alleged to have been committed. Though the article is long on the details of what these specialists imagine to be the Rwandan mind, it is short on facts. Therein, it faithfully follows the popular literary tradition on Africa developed during the slavery and colonialism that would have Africans killing each other, and in this case raping each other, for no reason whatsoever.
The Times reporter fails even to mention the shooting down of President Habyarimana plane that triggered the tragic events. As for the October 1990 invasion of Rwanda - had there been no invasion, there would have been no massacres - the event is alluded to as follows: “As tensions increased around 1990”.
Who could imagine writing or saying “As tensions increased around December 7, 1941” to describe relations with Japanese Americans, or Canadians, up to and including their internment, without mentioning Pearl Harbour? What would be said if the September 1939 Blitzkrieg on Poland were to be described in the popular press as “increased tensions between Poles and Germans”. Though the invasion of Rwanda on October 1, 1990, was exactly the same nature as Pearl Harbour and the Blitzkrieg, the New York Times writes called it “increased tensions”.
Gore Vidal has said that the Times is the Typhoid Mary of American journalism in reference to the New York cook between 1900 and 1907 went about her work gaily and spread the disease to everybody she came in contact with. With globalization, it would seem that the disease now goes beyond United States’ borders. The same article or excerpts from it appeared in many many papers including the Toronto Star and The Montreal Gazette in Canada, and Le Courrier international and Le Figaro in France.
Jean-Paul Akayesu was elected burgomaster of Taba in 1993, the chosen candidate of the main party opposed to President Habyarimana, the Mouvement Démocratique Républicain (MDR). The party leader, Faustin Twagiramungu, who became Prime Minister of Rwanda in July 1994 following the RPF military victory insists that Akayesu is innocent of all charges. “We chose that man to be our candidate because he was liked and trusted by the Tutsis.”
Jean-Paul Akayesu described how he behaved during the crisis. “I spared no efforts to prevent the massacres. I issued orders not to let any killer come into Taba. We fought against the militia thugs in Taba. Some were even killed. But with only six policemen, how could I fight against armed gangs? There was widespread fighting and killing in Kigali. People were fleeing from Kigali to Taba, older people, men, women, children, pregnant women too. Taba was considered a safe haven.”
The term “genocide” was generally unknown to Rwandans before 1994. “We had learned about the genocide against the Jews in school,” Akayesu said, “but I was well into my trial before I knew anything about the legal meaning of the term, that it is a systematic attack on Tutsis and that I was supposed to have incited people to massacre my fellow Tutsi citizens. I did exactly the opposite! For example, the very day that massacres began in Taba, I had met a hundred or so people gathered around a Hutu who had been killed. The killers had taken off because they knew I was going to arrest them.”
Akayesu points out that the cumulative effect of years of war, President Habyarimana’s assassination, rumours of massacres and violence at the hands of the RPF army and the fighting and shooting in Kigali that could be heard as far as Taba, had prompted thousands of people to flee towards his town. In May 1994, some 140 000 people, internal refugees from the RPF-imposed war, all in need food and shelter, were in and around Taba commune. “With only six policemen, what could I do to stop the killings?”
Now Akayesu knows the legal meaning of the term “genocide” and is serving a life sentence for the crime of genocide, yet he categorically rejects the use of the term to describe the Rwandan war. “There were Hutus and Tutsis in the whole Rwandan state apparatus, in all the political parties including the President’s party and the famous Interahamwe. Even the leader of the Interahamwe was a Tutsi. Do you think it is possible to plan to eliminate the Tutsis without them knowing? Would it even be possible? I do not think so. Look at President Habyarimana’s own political entourage and you’ll see that there were many Tutsis who were his good friends. Who could have planned to eliminate the Tutsis without them knowing about it?”
When the Court of Appeal in The Hague brought down its verdict, Jean-Paul Akayesu thought about, and referred to, Dreyfus who had been wrongfully convicted 100 years earlier. “Like Dreyfus, I have been the victim of injustice from the very beginning, and I have never ceased denouncing it and proclaiming my innocence. When I was arrested in Lusaka on October 10, 1995, they also arrested a government minister, a prefect, some senior civil servants. All the others were released. I was held. They continued to hold me because they had to fabricate evidence and that was easy to do to a burgomaster who lived with and was elected by the people. But it makes no sense at all. They release the prefect, the senior civil servant and the minister, all of whom could have decided on or planned a genocide, but they hold the burgomaster of a small town who has a mere six policemen working for him.” After that, the tribunal appointed defense counsel against Akayesu’s will and violated all their own rules and procedures. Then there was the appeal.
The burgomaster of Taba was the first to be convicted by an International Tribunal that, for its own credibility and to justify $350 million already spent, needed to obtain a conviction that would not be overturned. It is not surprising therefore that the Appeals Chamber had prepared its ruling rejecting Jean-Paul Akayesu’s appeal early in March 2001 before his appeal brief had even been translated into English for the Judges among whom one knew absolutely no French.
The final ruling came down on June 1, 2002. Three months earlier, a Tutsi (witness BBB) had contacted Jean-Paul Akayesu’s family. When Akayesu filed BBB’s sworn testimony before the Appeals Chamber with details showing that almost all evidence presented during his trial had been fabricated, the Court refused to consider it and did not bother to hold a hearing to examine the seriousness of the testimony.
After he was arrested in 1995, Jean-Paul Akayesu fully believed he would be released within a couple of weeks. He told his wife exactly that. After eight years behind bars, he has become extremely bitter about the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. “It is a tribunal with a mission! An ad hoc tribunal created to punish Rwandan Hutus. There have been serious and credible revelations about President Habyarimana’s assassination and the abominable crimes committed by the RPF. The tribunal has ignored them all. It is cultivating impunity for the current Rwandan government.”
Despite his bitter experience, Jean-Paul Akayesu has not lost hope. He is like many other political prisoners or wrongfully convicted people who gained notoriety over time. He carefully gathers his documents together. He is always writing and preparing for his case to be reopened, confident that he will end up proving his innocence and that he will be able to join is family that is now dispersed throughout the world.
124 Langston Hughes, 1942, in Collected Works of Langston Hughes, Volume 2, The Poems: 1941-1950, University of Missouri Press, Columbia and London, 2001.
125 The witness’s real names are not divulged.
126 Statement under oath by BBB made before Éric THIBAUT de Maisières, notary at Saint-Gilles (Bruxelles). Jean-Paul Akayesu’s lawyer, John Philpot met BBB for three days. The witnesses name is not revealed for his and his family’s safety. This is the original French statement: “Approximativement au début de 1997 selon mon souvenir, on a commencé à parler des témoins de viol. Avant il n’y avait pas question de preuve de viol. M. Karangwa m’a dit qu’il y a des veuves et d’autres qui sont faciles à manipuler pour témoigner sur le viol.”
127 Ishmael Reed, Spielberg Plays Howard Beach, in Writin’ is Fightin’, Thirty-seven years of Boxing on Paper, Atheneum, New York, 1990, p. 145.
128 Sujata MOORTI, Color of Rape, Gender and Race in Television’s Public Spheres, State University of New York Press, 2002.
129 Ibid. p. 6.
130 Nine young African American men arrested in Alabama for having raped two white women were sentenced to death. That sentence was commuted for all but won, the “Scotsboro Boys” all served long sentences in prison before they were acquited after a massive support campaign.
131 The New York Times Magazine, Sunday September 15, 2002, “The Minister of Rape”.