By James Stairs
Montreal – Canada’s landmark genocide trial was dramatically interrupted Thursday when the Rwandan man accused of war crimes came to court in a wheelchair after being severely beaten by a fellow prison inmate who read the trial’s shocking details of rape and murder in a local newspaper.
Desire Munyaneza, 40, is charged under Canadian law with two counts of genocide, two of crimes against humanity and three counts of war crimes for his role in the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
Munyaneza has pleaded not guilty to the charges. If convicted, he faces life in a Canadian prison.
An estimated 800,000 people, mostly Tutsis and moderate Hutus, died in the 100 days of violence that engulfed the African nation 13 years ago this week.
The son of a wealthy Hutu businessman from the town of Butare, 135 kilometres south of the Rwandan capital Kigali, Munyaneza fled to Canada in 1996 but was denied refugee status.
He remained in Toronto until he was arrested in October 2005 after being recognized by members of the local Rwandan community, who reported him to police.
Canada is the second western nation, after Belgium, to try alleged participants of the Rwandan genocide in the country they fled to. The case is the first prosecution under Canada’s Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes Act, tabled in 2000.
Munyaneza appeared in the Montreal courtroom Thursday in a wheelchair, his head lolling to one side as he dabbed his noticeably swollen face with a handkerchief. He did not address the court.
According to his attorneys, Munyaneza was slashed across the face and beaten in a common area of the Montreal prison where he was being held. He has since been moved to another facility.
‘Someone obviously tried to severely injure if not kill him,’ defense lawyer Laurence Cohen said outside the courtroom Thursday, questioning why the father of two had been left alone with his attacker.
‘He’s lucky to be alive,’ Cohen added. ‘From what I understand, the attacker read about the trial in the newspaper.’
Quebec police said Thursday that they are investigating the incident but that no charges had been filed as yet. The attacker, who has not been named, reportedly has a history of violent behaviour.
Presiding judge Andre Denis, was visibly angered by the events, calling the incident ‘intolerable,’ adding that he was embarrassed that the attack had disrupted the high-profile case.
Testimony at the trial has been graphic and disturbing with the witnesses’ identities shielded from public view for fear of reprisal in Rwanda.
On Tuesday, a witness, identified by the code name C-17, testified that Munyaneza raped her on four separate occasions, pulling her from a huddled group of refugees who had sought safety in the Butare prefecture, or local government office, before assaulting her in a remote location.
C-17, 20 years old at the time, testified that she saw Munyaneza rape two other women and murder two men from the refugee group. Other members of the Interahamwe militia pummelled the men with clubs as Munyaneza slashed one to death with a machete.
The trial, now in its third week, heard earlier that an armed Munyaneza manned a roadblock in Butare, demanding identification cards in the aftermath of the airplane crash that killed Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana – an event used by Hutu extremists to set off a campaign to exterminate the Tutsi minority.
Several witnesses testified that Munyaneza loaded Tutsi refugees onto a pick-up truck stained with blood, telling them that they would be escorted to safety only to be taken to the killing fields and mass graves located outside of the town.
The trial has also seen several animated exchanges between the witnesses and defense attorneys.
At one point, a witness, angered by the detail-oriented questioning of attorney Richard Perras, admonished him for focusing on dates and prior testimony.
‘Why must I repeat answers I have already given,’ she demanded. ‘Do you want me to say that the people of Rwanda were killed by hyenas?’
The trial is scheduled to resume Monday and is expected to last well into the summer. Nine more Rwandan witnesses are expected to testify over the coming weeks. Several others will testify in June including retired Canadian general Romeo Dallaire, who led an undermanned UN force in Rwanda during the genocide.