Désiré Munyaneza, a Rwandan residing in Canada, was convicted last May of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity by the Quebec superior court in Montreal. His lawyers returned to court last Tuesday to debate the terms of his sentence, which will be given on October 29.
He is the first person to be tried under the Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes Act, passed in 2000 that allows for residents who committed war crimes abroad to be prosecuted in Canada. The decision will follow two years of proceedings that have involved over 60 witnesses and a cost of $1.6 million.
Frédéric Mégret, an associate professor of law at McGill and director of the McGill Clinic for the Sierra Leone Special Court, acknowledged the complexity of the case while appraising its national significance.
“Rwanda is in Canada, and not just in an abstract way. There is a large [Rwandan] community here and this is part of our duty to uphold peace and certain values,” Mégret said. “We don’t want criminals running into their former victims.”
Munyaneza, a Hutu from Butare, Rwanda, has been found guilty of murder, sexual assault, and inhumane treatment of Tutsis during the 1994 Rwandan genocide of an estimated 800,000 Rwandans. He came to Canada in 1997, and was refused refugee status as a result of RCMP investigations that ultimately led to his arrest in 2005.
Jean-Paul Nyilinkwaya, a genocide survivor and head of the Truth and Justice Commission of PAGE-Rwanda – a Montreal-based association for parents and friends of genocide victims – commended Canada’s involvement in prosecutions.
“There are so many [war criminals] that if Rwanda takes it on themselves it will be a long time to achieve justice,” Nyilinkwaya said, adding that the legislation sends “a strong message that Canada is not a safe haven.”
There are an estimated 1,500 war criminals and human-rights abusers known to reside in Canada.
While many hoped that the fear of facing prosecution would deter such individuals from entering the country, many continue to land on Canadian soil.
Nyilinkwaya argued that the process of granting refugee status for individuals who enter Canada should be more rigourous, even suggesting that the process slow down or stop altogether until suspicious criminal claims are fully investigated.
Mégret agreed on the importance of exercising discretion during the refugee status process, but cautioned that it should not come at the expense of hampering the majority of civilians and victims of conflict who seek asylum in Canada.
Superior Court Justice André Denis is slated to hand his sentence down on October 29.
Observers expect a life sentence, but the defendant’s lawyers are also expected to appeal for a reduced parole period.
Defense lawyer Richard Perras will argue for leniency, citing the fact that the judge’s verdict found his client guilty of participation, but not of planning and deliberation.
Mégret said that the judge might take into account whether or not Munyaneza was a ringleader in the events.
“The ICTR [UN International War Crimes Tribunal for Rwanda] was never meant to judge all of the accused. Its mandate is to indict and prosecute leaders, and Munyaneza was simply not one of them,” Mégret said.
Nevertheless, Nyilinkwaya said that the Rwandan community is watching the trial closely, which will set a precdent for future war crimes trials in Canada.