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.
"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."
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.
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.
"They had only given us the public-record part of the case, and a number of witnesses testify in closed session. The tribunal is hoping to bring one of the students on site to analyze all of the closed-session, confidential material."
On his way home, Akerson stopped by the Hague to see the June 4 opening argument for the trial of Charles Taylor, the former president of Liberia who financed and supported atrocities against civilians in Sierra Leone. "Charles Taylor destabilized West Africa," he says. "He took child-soldier recruitment to unprecedented levels, and one of his practices was to take a couple of boys, cut off their hands and then send them ahead into the village knowing that the villagers would run and panic."
Akerson hopes Taylor's trial will be the first his students analyze as the testimony is given instead of after the fact. "Ultimately, what I'm proposing to the tribunals and the law school is that we do every international war-crimes trial," he says. "The goal for me is that we have a full-blown war-crimes clinic. I've made proposals to both the University of Colorado and DU law schools to see who wants to pick up the program.
"Nobody is analyzing the evidence in the way we're doing. I happen to be the guy who introduced the technology, so I know how to do it."
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Denver, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.