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The Rwanda case is the most interesting case in the world," says University of Denver adjunct law professor David Akerson. "It's unbelievable: 800,000 killed in ninety days. Six times the rate of the German genocide. Still, you lose sight of the fact that they're individual people being killed. That's 800,000 individuals. And each one is a story."
The most well known is the experience of Paul Rusesabagina, brought to life on the silver screen by Denver native Don Cheadle in Hotel Rwanda. But the full extent of the story is that between April and July of 1994, two-thirds of Rwanda's Tutsi population was murdered on the orders of a small political elite within the Hutu majority. For years leading up to the massacres, they spread propaganda to unite Hutus in fear and hatred against Tutsis. Lists were drawn up of people to eliminate. Weapons were imported, including enough machetes to arm every third Hutu man. Boys were trained into the savage Interhamwe militia, which, fueled by drugs and alcohol, carried out much of the rape and killings as if it were a game.
When the United Nations created the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in 1994, the world hadn't seen a major war-crimes trial prosecuted since Nuremberg. Since then, the court has tried some thirty defendants, with cases against another thirty now pending and nine more awaiting trial. And Akerson and his students have landed themselves at the center of the action.
Akerson was a defense attorney in Denver when the tribunal was created, but he'd long been passionate about human-rights law. One of his first jobs out of law school was with Lawyers for Human Rights during the last years of Apartheid. He had just arrived in South Africa when a woman came to the office and said her husband had been sentenced to death. She knew he was about to be killed because he'd already been measured for the hanging. "We quickly got a team of lawyers and put together a stay of execution," Akerson says. "And it was successful. So all of a sudden, Lawyers for Human Rights was sending members [into the prisons] and soliciting information about who had been measured."
They won on every stay of execution filed, and the white government eventually declared a moratorium on executions. "That was my first job out of law school," Akerson says. "In South Africa. Going to judges' houses in the middle of the night. It was incredible. Doing anything else seemed kind of silly."
After spending the next twelve years as a defense attorney in Miami and Denver, Akerson had been waiting for a chance to return to Africa, so he applied to work on the Rwanda tribunal's prosecution team. He became Chief of Information and Evidence, thanks to a computer-science degree he hadn't used in a decade.
When he arrived in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, in 1999, the evidence investigators had spent years collecting was piled into a humid hotel bathroom. Akerson first digitized everything so that the documents, videos and photographs would be preserved, and then he began creating a database where all the transcripts and evidence could be stored in a central place. "These are big, complex cases. Each day of testimony is about 100, 150 pages of transcripts. Some of the trials take years. They're all in French, English and Kinyarwandan."
Even with a central database, there was information missing — especially as lawyers from around the world came and left the tribunal. "You would finish with a witness, and in a perfect world, you would want to summarize how that witness did at trial, where he testified effectively, where defense was able to cross-examine and break him down a little," Akerson says. "But your attention quickly got focused on the next witness rather than finishing up the first."
The tribunal began to use interns but could only afford to bring in one for each legal team, and summarizing the testimony of a hundred or more witnesses for each case was too much for a single person. When Akerson left the Rwanda tribunal after a couple of years to do similar work at the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia, he saw the same dilemma.
Last year he made good on a promise he had made to his wife, Katie Reinisch, and moved back to Denver. Reinisch had quit her job as vice president for public affairs at Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains and taken their one- and three-year-old to live in Africa on the agreement that they would alternate living abroad and in the states every few years.
As Akerson prepared to leave his role with the tribunals, he asked if they would let him experiment with a team of "externs" who could summarize the trials. "Everybody was skeptical about having somebody off-site do this work," he says. "It's sensitive. They don't want to give away prosecution strategy outside the building. So my solution was, just give me the public records. I can figure out what the key legal issues are, so it's not your prosecution strategy. It's just students and me putting together a resource, a tool you can use.