OTTAWA — Was former Rwandan schoolteacher Jacques Mungwarere a cold, young killer who even shot children as part of the 1994 genocide, or is he the victim of a series of politically charged fabrications?
This is what Judge Michel Charbonneau must decide in Canada’s second trial under the Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes Act.
On Monday, Mungwarere plead not guilty to several counts of genocide and crimes against humanity as his trial began in Ontario Superior Court. He had already opted against a jury trial.
The bright-eyed, young-looking, 40-year-old arrived at court wearing a white shirt, a black vest and pants. He was arrested in 2009 in Windsor, Ont., following a lengthy RCMP investigation.
The trial is likely to last for several weeks, as the details of a six-year RCMP investigation are laid before the court and witnesses from different locations appear both in person and by video-link.
The horrific days of 1994, when 800,000 Rwandans of mostly Tutsi descent were massacred by the Hutu majority, were described in some detail in the sedate courtroom on Monday.
Mungwarere is accused of participating in a massacre of Tutsis in the region of Kibuye. Hundreds of people had sought refuge in a local hospital, believing they might find sanctuary.
Prosecutor Luc Boucher said local militias encircled the compound on April 16, 1994 and began shooting and slaughtering the people inside. Mungwarere is accused of shooting some of the victims himself.
Some escaped the hospital and ran to the outlying hills. Mungwarere is alleged to have helped hunt down and kill fugitives. It is also alleged that he raped some of those who were captured.
Boucher said one witness who was forced to abandon a baby so he could survive on foot will testify that Mungwarere subsequently shot the child in the head. Other witnesses are expected to testify that they saw Mungwarere regularly meet members of the militia group that was hunting down Tutsis.
Mungwarere’s defence team, lead by Marc Nerenberg, is set to argue that the testimony of the witnesses is a complete fabrication based on their own agendas.
The Crown’s first witness was Rwanda expert and author Timothy Longman, who spent years in the lush West African country both immediately before and after the genocide.
Longman, a political science professor at Vassar College, described in detail how tensions built up in Rwanda over the last century, fuelled by a largely artificial division of the population along ethnic lines that was perpetuated by the German and Belgian colonial regimes.
He also made clear that he has serious difficulties with the current regime in Rwanda, which he described as a dictatorship that has tried to quash dissent and silence critics.
Nerenberg focused on this element in his cross-examination of Longman, underlining the weaknesses of the genocide-tribunal system in Rwanda that put justice in the hands of citizens at the community level rather than judges and lawyers.
Roughly 250,000 individuals had been elected to the local tribunals, only receiving a week of training as they helped prosecute roughly 900,000 accused.
Longman acknowledged that there had been cases of false accusations, sometimes based on competing interests such as claims on land.
“Isn’t it so, that Tutsis who make false accusations have basically nothing much to fear?” Nerenberg asked Longman.
Longman said there has been a policy of reduced sentences for those who confess to their crimes and they must also present evidence against others. He said that has resulted in some Hutus accusing others of atrocities, often people already in jail.
And Longman said the government has tried to quash its critics by accusing them of being pro-genocide.
The court is set to hear next from RCMP investigators.
The first person to be tried under the Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes Act, Rwandan Desire Munyaneza, was convicted in 2009 and sentenced to life in prison without a chance of parole for 25 years.