KIGALI, RWANDA — When US Marine Capt. Peter Sennett first visited Rwanda a year ago, he found a country so traumatized by the 1994 genocide that wiped out one-eighth of the population, his mission seemed, well, impossible.
It wasn't so much that the prosecutors and criminal investigators he was to train lacked sophisticated knowledge of courtroom protocol and investigative techniques. It was that they lacked focus and direction.
"They were completely overwhelmed by what had happened. They did not know where to begin bringing people to justice," Captain Sennett recalls. "I'd get them in class and ask a question, and all I'd get were these blank stares."
A dark-haired, solid-looking reservist in the Naval Justice School Detachment, Sennett was sent by the US State Department in May 1996 to help Rwanda's justice system deal with the consequences of the 1994 genocide. About 800,000 people, mostly from the Tutsi ethnic group, were buried in mass graves, and some 50,000 suspects, mostly from the Hutu ethnic group, were sitting in jail, awaiting trial.
A process of national reconciliation is now struggling to make headway. Tutsis and Hutus are no longer identified as such on ID cards.
And large-scale efforts have been made to re-integrate Hutu refugees, who fled after the genocide, fearing retribution from the Tutsi rebels who took over the country in 1994. Since their forced return last year, hundreds of thousands have flowed back into Rwanda from camps in eastern Congo and Tanzania.
Still, with the number of suspects jailed on genocide charges now up to more than 110,000 - with only 156 having been tried so far - Rwandan courts are under a far greater strain today than they were a year ago. Many prisoners are held in overcrowded cells without adequate food or water.
"We estimate that at this rate it will take them 345 years to prosecute all the people they have sitting in jail," says Andrea Ori, an aid worker with the UN refugee agency in Kigali.
Which may be why Sennett and a team of two attorneys and three criminal investigators were sent in again with blessings from the State Department and 50 headsets for simultaneous translation.
"We have classes from 8:30 a.m. until 4:30 p.m.," Capt. John Marley, now a civilian attorney, explains. "We teach our 32 students basic courtrooms skills like opening arguments, evidence exhibit, closing statements, and so on."
Twenty of the trainees are civilian prosecutors selected by Rwanda's Ministry of Justice; the rest are military prosecutors.
"We found a completely different situation this time around. The people we're training now are much more focused in identifying problem areas. We're now getting questions about duplicitous charges and witness protection," Sennett adds.
Back to basics
The three criminal investigators brought in from the Rhode Island and Los Angeles Police Departments are teaching aspects of building a case against an accused person. In class, they focus on a few basics, such as the preservation of evidence and preservation of crime scenes. They also teach ballistic comparisons and methods of fingerprint collection.
"Since we can't tell them to just scrap up the evidence and send it to the lab, we're going back to the fundamentals of criminal investigation," Captain Marley, a sandy-haired, energetic man, says. "Ballistics comparisons started with magnifying glasses, and that's where we're at today."
Rwanda spiraled into violence in April 1994, the day after the plane carrying its Hutu president, Juvnal Habyarimana, was shot down. He was on his way to Arusha, Tanzania, where he was to sign a power-sharing agreement with the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). The massacres began within hours, with local Hutu authorities endorsing the slaughter of the Tutsi population and engineering the murder of moderate Hutus in the army and in politics.
Three months later, Tutsi RPF rebels swept into the capital, driving those who perpetrated the genocide from power. But they left behind a daunting task for Rwanda's new leaders: Thousands of alleged killers to bring to justice, and until last year, only 16 legally trained lawyers to try them with.
With investigations largely hinged on testimony by genocide survivors, Rwandan prosecutors are also being taught how to handle witnesses in court. Getting witnesses to show up has proved almost impossible. Many survivors balk at the idea of pointing their finger at an accused for fear of retribution. At least 200 genocide survivors were killed last year, according to the UN.
No witness-protection plan
"Obviously, we can't expect the Rwandans to come up with a witness-protection program like we have in the States, so getting people to testify is still the greatest hurdle," Capt. Greg Noon, another US Marine reservist, points out. Those who agree to take the stand are immediately faced with another problem: contradiction by witnesses called in by the defense.
"Say an old woman, the sole survivor of a village that's been entirely wiped out, decides to testify. The defense will produce witnesses who'll say she's senile, or just crazy, and it's their word against hers," Captain Noon says. "We deal with that by discussing motive, by focusing on what makes a witness credible.... Unfortunately, no methodology will provide a quick fix."
The investigation faces another significant obstacle: the preservation of crime scenes in areas being repopulated by returning Hutu refugees.
"There are masses of people streaming back into genocide areas, and they're just shoving bones aside and destroying massive amounts of evidence," says Sennett. "There's nothing we can do about that, and in a way it's understandable. People just want to go on with their lives."