From Pittsburgh to solitary confinement
Leopold Munyakazi fled from Rwanda to Pittsburgh in 2004. After criticizing the Rwandan government, he was deported and sentenced to life in solitary, reports freelance writer BILL ZLATOS
Leopold Munyakazi, a former Pittsburgh resident who taught at a suburban high school, was convicted of genocide-related crimes three weeks ago and sentenced to live out his life in solitary confinement in Rwanda. He has been, by some accounts, tortured.
But friends and certain Africa experts consider the charges almost certainly false. In September, Mr. Munyakazi lost a nearly 10-year battle to gain political asylum in the United States and avoid deportation because he believed, perhaps naively, that living in America would save him from the 7,000-mile grasp of Rwandan President — some would say dictator — Paul Kagame.
Mr. Munyakazi and his family are not the only losers here. Also losing are free speech, academic freedom and other political dissidents who run afoul of Mr. Kagame.
Mr. Munyakazi’s friend, Christine Frechard, who lives in Highland Park, talked to him before he boarded the plane back to Rwanda. “I met two heroes in my life, and he is one of them,” she said, the other being Chinese poet and dissident Huang Xiang. “They both fought nonsense in the country where they were born. A hurricane tries to knock them down, but they stay steady.”
Rwanda is a nation of about 12 million people in East Africa. In 1994, the plane carrying its Hutu president was shot down, killing all aboard and sparking 100 days of terror in which about 800,000 Tutsis and Hutu moderates were killed, mostly by Hutu extremists.
The predominately Tutsi army of the Rwandan Patriotic Front, led by the American-trained Mr. Kagame, stopped the bloodshed and cloaked itself in the mantle of heroism for ending genocide, with all Tutsis good and all Hutus evil. The West, remorseful for ignoring the mass murder, tends to accept this argument. Rwanda gets about 40 percent of its revenue from foreign aid, including $2 billion since 2007 from the United States.
Two years ago, Rwanda published a list of genocide suspects living abroad, including Mr. Munyakazi, and authorized confiscation of their property. Timothy Longman, an Africa scholar from Boston University, said some suspects may have been involved in genocide, but many were not.
Mr. Munyakazi’s case shows how closely the government tracks Rwandans abroad, accusing many of genocide and “hence justifying things like seizing their properties,” Mr. Longman wrote in an email.
President or vice-president since 1994, Mr. Kagame helped stop the massacre, restore order and reduce corruption. Nevertheless, Rwanda under his leadership has killed or tried to kill numerous critics, at home and abroad, according to Toronto’s Globe and Mail. The regime so disdains human rights that protests erupted in reaction to the 2011 decision of Carnegie Mellon University to open a campus in the Rwandan capital, Kigali.
Mr. Munyakazi, 67, was born a Hutu and married a Tutsi
with whom he has five children. He speaks English, French and Kinyarwanda and holds a doctorate in linguistics and phonetics. He was imprisoned without charges like many Hutu men after the genocide. Released five years later, he was cleared to teach at a public university and given a passport, which he used to seek political asylum in the United States.
Mr. Munyakazi arrived in Pittsburgh in 2004 and at first lived and worked in Highland Park as a waiter. In 2005-2006, he taught French in the Highlands School District, and later went on to teach at Montclair State University in New Jersey and Goucher College outside of Baltimore.
Here Mr. Munyakazi’s story takes a nasty turn. At public debates, he challenged the official version of the 1994 bloodshed. Mr. Munyakazi called it a civil war and fratricide, but not genocide. Denial of genocide is a crime in Rwanda.
Rwanda soon charged him with genocide denial and with genocide. A crew from a CBS reality show popped up at Goucher asking why the college had hired a killer. Goucher suspended him, and the United States began deportation hearings.
Proclaiming his innocence, Mr. Munyakazi said he helped save five Tutsis by arranging for false documents identifying them as Hutus. Several Rwanda experts, though not with Mr. Munyakazi during the genocide, presume his innocence because of the timeline.
“I can’t imagine someone in [Rwanda], released from jail, hired by the state-led university and then nobody charging him with anything,” said Noel Twagiramungu, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell and a former student of Mr. Munyakazi’s. “The new charges were fabricated, as were the ones for which he was arrested in 1994. The motive would be because he was speaking against the government.”
Mr. Twagiramungu said the Rwandan government, relying on the emotionally searing memories of genocide, invents charges of genocide to silence critics and punish opponents. A former leader of a human rights group in Rwanda, he fled the country after death threats.
Susan M. Thomson, associate professor of peace and conflict studies at Colgate University, calls Mr. Munyakazi the victim of a “smear campaign” and his deportation a “moral failure.” Years earlier, Rwanda had sent Ms. Thomson to a re-education camp because of a critical book she had written. She later received a veiled death threat.
Human rights advocates fear that Mr. Munyakazi’s deportation to face charges will further embolden Rwanda to manufacture false accusations against dissidents.
“Why wouldn’t they if it seems to work?” wrote Filip Reyntjens of the University of Antwerp in an email. He may be the first academic Rwanda declared “persona non grata” after a “moderately critical” memo in 1994.
The nonprofit organization Freedom House ranks Rwanda as “not free” for suppressing dissent and civil liberties. Due to doubts that fair trials can be held in Rwanda, France and Great Britain refuse to extradite suspects accused of crimes in Rwanda. The United States and Canada do.
News of Munyakazi’s verdict saddens Ofelia Calderon, an immigration attorney in Fairfax, Va., who defended him for free. His deportation still gnaws at her. She wonders what else she could have done to save him.
Before the court pronounced his life sentence last month, she predicted a grim fate for her client: “He’ll have a fake trial, and then he’ll be found guilty, and then he’ll be tortured and killed,” Ms. Calderon said. “He’ll be killed either officially or unofficially.”
According to an article last year in The Rwandan, authorities injected him with a poison that weakened his reasoning. The result, the newspaper concluded: The affable intellectual spends his time “dancing like anyone whois mentally ill.”