Rwanda Deliverance

DU law professor David Akerson and his students sum up justice.

"This is a new thing for the law school, a new thing for the tribunals. If it works for the Rwanda tribunal, it has a lot of potential."

The database Akerson designed at DU is essentially an outline of everything defendants are accused of in an indictment. Each line item has a number beside it that represents — and links to — the facts that support that accusation. The law students in his Human Rights-Tribunal internship class — as well as a few from the Graduate School for International Studies who were invited to participate — had to read witness testimony, summarize it, pull out each fact and link it back to the outline, as well as indicate where to find the information in the transcript. The goal was to allow the prosecution team to easily see where and how effectively each of its arguments were proven.

"It's been completely worth it to hear the first-person accounts," says first-year grad student Anika Amon, who spent ten to twenty hours each week staring at a computer screen. "You can't stop reading. You pause and you have to go back."

David Akerson is helping to deliver justice to the victims of the Rwanda genocide.
Anthony Camera
David Akerson is helping to deliver justice to the victims of the Rwanda genocide.

The Rwanda tribunal currently has eleven cases in progress, five of which are against multiple defendants. The case the students analyzed over the past few months was a combined trial of six defendants accused of orchestrating the killings in the Butare region south of Kigali, where thousands of Tutsis fled when the genocide began. It was an educated area, home to the National University of Rwanda, and its top official was a Tutsi, who publicly condemned the killings and was murdered. One of the defendants is Pauline Nyiramasuhuko, minister for the Family and Women's Development, who is accused of suggesting that militia members reward themselves by raping women and girls. "I had quite a few women," Amon says of the witness testimony she was assigned. "They were at various refugee, or herded, camps. I wouldn't even call them refugee camps. They were being herded to different places. They'd be sleeping outside, and the accused would come at night, take people away, make them take off their clothes, and these people would never return."

One of Amon's witnesses, who was identified as QAM for the trial's purposes, was nineteen and lived in Butare with her mother, sister and three brothers. Her family and the other Tutsis in their village were ordered to leave their homes and walk to a compound. There, police opened fire on them while the Interhamwe militia waited to attack with machetes and spears. "When they started shooting at us, we started gathering together so that we can be killed with the bullets instead of being cut down by the Interhamwes," QAM said. "They approached those who...had been wounded with the bullets, and they started cutting them to pieces." She ran and escaped, but two of her family members were killed.

Sixteen-year-old RE, another of Amon's witnesses, was sent to a camp at a government office in Butare where she was not given food or water. Buses would leave packed with Tutsis and return empty. "When we had been made to board the buses on the second day, we were supposed to go to the same destination, but when we reached [a roadblock], Interhamwe...said that the graves were full, that they could not kill us, and that if the prefect were to insist that they kill us, they would do so, but they would send the bodies back to the prefect so that he can bury them."

One night, RE remembered Nyiramasuhuko coming to the camp and asking, "Is that dirt still here?" referring to the Tutsis, and then saying the people should be killed and the women and young girls should be raped.

"Soldiers and Interhamwe came day and night and take away women and young girls to go and rape them," RE said. "Those who refused to be raped were killed; it was those who survived the rape who came back to speak about it."

At one of the last extern meetings for the Butare case, Amon and her peers complained about how unbelievable the defense witnesses' testimony seemed. "How could you be in Rwanda at that time and not know anything was going on?" she asked.

"They couldn't even drink their water because it was contaminated from all the dead bodies," said fellow classmate Niki Hawthorne.

Although their externship ended in May, all of the students are ready to start working on the next case. "I really hope what we do ends up helping the prosecutor," says student Jessi Schimmel. "There's so much evidence against these people. It's just got to be a slam-dunk case. It has to be."

They should soon find out. After six years of testimony, the parties in the pending Butare case will deliver their closing remarks later this year. Akerson went to Tanzania last month to hand-deliver the database that the prosecution team will use in its preparations. His students had spent 2,500 hours, worth about $125,000 in the local market, to create the free resource for the tribunal.

"It went better than I could have hoped," he says. "I think they were blown away by the fact that I was delivering a finished product and not showing them what they have to do. Most of the other trials going on at ICTR also want us to do the same. And when the judges' staff found out, they requested a demonstration as well.

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