Professor’s fate: Cleared of murders, convicted for speech
TOWSON, Md. (AP) — Catherine Mukantabana did her best after her husband was taken away. She consoled the children, worked as a nurse in Towson and tried to escape the grim allegations that haunted them.
This summer came an answer to her prayers. And yet, the phone call brought both comfort and grief.
The world would know her husband was no war criminal. But he still wasn’t coming home.
A Rwandan court ruled Leopold Munyakazi had not taken part in the bloodshed of his country’s 1994 genocide. The aging scholar, who taught French at Goucher College, has spent nearly two years in a Rwandan prison on genocide charges.
The court found that Munyakazi was not a killer, but a dissident after a controversial talk he gave on a U.S. campus. He was sentenced to nine years in prison, his wife said.
“The American government should do something,” she said. “They failed to protect him. He was asking for asylum because of his opinion here, but they didn’t get it.”
The ruling settles lingering questions among those at Goucher who remember when the small liberal-arts campus was entangled in international intrigue. Professors had grappled with the allegations that their soft-spoken, bespectacled colleague was a murderous Genocidaire in hiding.
“It’s not just that Leopold got off. It’s that there were charges that were filed that were intensely unjust,” said Steven DeCaroli, a philosophy professor. “It’s an incredible vindication.”
Some find harsh irony in this end to his decade-long case. How could a man be brought to Goucher by a program to protect scholars, but end up imprisoned for his political beliefs?
“It is very troubling,” said Sanford Ungar, former Goucher president and director of the Free Speech Project at Georgetown University. “One likes to think of this as a haven for people who are under threat and in danger in their home countries. That’s why we had him at Goucher.”
The case against Munyakazi traces to April 6, 1994. An airplane carrying Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana was shot down as it prepared to land in the capital city of Kigali, killing the president and everyone else on board. Ethnic violence erupted.
Extremist Hutus waged a 100-day massacre and killed between 750,000 and 1 million Rwandans, according to U.S. State Department estimates. Nearly three-quarters of the minority Tutsi population, including women and children, were slaughtered as well as moderate Hutus.
The brutality was depicted in the 2004 film “Hotel Rwanda,” which follows a Hutu hotel manager’s heroics to protect families.
When the killings ended, tens of thousands of people were arbitrarily arrested, according to the nonprofit Human Rights Watch. Rwanda’s prisons swelled with 130,000 people four years after the bloodshed. About 1 percent of prisoners had received a trial by 1998, according to the nonprofit.
Among those behind bars was the Hutu scholar Munyakazi. He would testify almost a decade later in America that he was beaten and jailed for five years without charges or a trial. Rwandan prosecutors released him in 1999.
Munyakazi taught at a university in Rwanda. In July 2004, he flew to a conference on French literature in Atlanta and applied for asylum in the U.S. with his family.
He was teaching French at Montclair State University in New Jersey two years later, when he was invited to speak at the University of Delaware. The speaker series was sponsored by Scholars at Risk, an organization that promotes academic freedom.
Munyakazi had become a controversial figure by then. He described Rwanda’s massacre as civil war rather than genocide, saying the conflict was rooted in a political power, not ethnic rivalries. He had also referred to the bloodshed as fratricide, brother against brother.
“We received an objection from the Rwandan Embassy but no details,” then-Delaware Provost Daniel Rich wrote in an email. “We decided to continue with the event.”
The student newspaper reported Munyakazi dismissed the version of events from Paul Rusesabagina, the humanitarian and hero of “Hotel Rwanda.”
“There is a kind of international conspiracy to hide the truth about what happened,” Munyakazi said, according to the newspaper. “It is quite wrong to say that genocide was committed by Hutus.”
To Rwandans, this amounted to genocide denial, a politically charged belief that carried the same weight as denying the Holocaust. Such views are widely disputed by African scholars.
Rwandan leaders have outlawed speech that minimizes or denies the genocide.
One month after Munyakazi spoke at Delaware, the Rwandan government issued an international arrest warrant charging him with genocide, conspiracy to commit genocide and denying the genocide.
He continued to teach and arrived at Goucher College in the fall of 2008 through the Scholar Rescue Fund, a nonprofit that places persecuted teachers at universities worldwide.
“He talked about this idea that what happened was not a genocide but a fratricide,” said Will Mathis, one of his students.
In December 2008, an NBC film crew and Rwandan prosecutor arrived on campus to confront Munyakazi about the charges. The footage never aired, but Goucher administrators were left wondering what to do. They suspended Munyakazi while they sorted it out.
The next month, U.S. immigration officials began deportation proceedings against him. He had overstayed his visa. His fight to remain in the United States consumed the next seven years. He challenged deportation through immigration court, then appealed to a federal judge.
Federal law prohibits asylum to anyone who incited or participated in persecution based on race, religion, politics or social groups. According to court records, federal agents flew to Rwanda and spent three weeks investigating the charges. They interviewed 22 witnesses and heard that Munyakazi, wearing the banana leaves of a Hutu, incited violence during a rally and organized nighttime raids on Tutsi homes, according to court records.
“They were careful to ensure that the Rwandan authorities did not interfere with their investigation,” U.S. Department of Justice officials wrote in court records.
Munyakazi’s attorney, Ofelia Calderon, called the investigation a charade. She says the agents were chaperoned and provided hand-picked witnesses.
In November 2010, an immigration judge denied him asylum, writing that evidence suggested Munyakazi may have participated in the genocide and that he failed to prove his innocence. The judge found his testimony suspect. The ruling was upheld years later in a federal appeal. He was deported in 2016 to stand trial in Rwanda. Munyakazi was convicted of all charges and sentenced to life in prison.
Back in Towson, his wife says, their family felt shame. Mukantabana says their children heard the accusations at school. Invitations to weddings and parties never came. She lost hope and felt alone. Among Rwandan immigrants, they were outcasts.
The family had been granted asylum. In November, their 29-year-old son, an engineer, killed himself in North Carolina, she said.
Munyakazi’s attorney appealed his conviction and won a new trial. In July, Mukantabana’s phone rang with the news. Her husband had been acquitted of the most serious charges. “Our prayers were answered,” she said.
State Department officials say they are aware the court acquitted him of genocide, but upheld his conviction of genocide denial. Officials declined to comment further.
Rwandan prosecutors, officials at the Rwandan Embassy in Washington and the country’s judicial spokesman did not return emails.
Some say Munyakazi’s charges were outlandish from the start.
“This is a case where the Rwandan government tried to silence a critic by making up genocide charges against him,” said Timothy Longman, an African scholar at Boston University
He says he respects the Department of Justice, but someone should have spotted the ruse. “Somebody didn’t do their sufficient research,” he said. “We don’t deport someone for speech crimes.”
DeCaroli, the philosophy professor, says U.S. immigration officials were duped. Calderon, the attorney, says their failure makes them complicit in the imprisonment overseas of a political dissenter.
Munyakazi’s wife says his attorney may appeal the sentence of nine years. She hopes he may return to her in Towson, where the apartment bookcase holds his volumes on the French language.
He never backed down with his beliefs, she says. Of course, he attended a French university and had Western ideas about free speech.
“I would say, ‘Stop talking!’ but he couldn’t.” she said. “That was his problem. He can’t keep quiet.”
Information from: The Baltimore Sun, http://www.baltimoresun.com