Bargaining away justice for women in Rwanda
“Do not keep them as wives, but rather rape them to make a difference and then kill them afterwards.”
–Paul Bisengimana, Rwanda, April 8, 1994
Over the course of a mere 100 days, from April through July of 1994, between 500,000 and 1 million Rwandan men, women, and children were slaughtered during the Rwandan genocide. The United Nations and human rights groups report that anywhere from 250,000 to 500,000 women were also horrifically sexually violated. Testimonials of women given to Human Rights Watch following the end of the conflict indicate that almost every woman and adolescent girl who survived the genocide was raped.
And yet, despite the creation of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) more than 15 years ago—a tribunal established by the UN to prosecute those responsible for the violence—many of these atrocious cases of sexualized violence have yet to find justice.
That rape is so often ignored in international criminal trials following a conflict is not news, but the reasons it is overlooked vary. To date, the ICTR has completed 72 cases, of which 17 are pending appeal. Ten have resulted in acquittal. While some perpetrators have been found guilty of rape as a crime against humanity—and, in fact, the ICTR was home to the first case in the world that named rape a crime against humanity—many have dodged convictions for sexualized violence. In some cases, the explanation is relatively simple: The men pled guilty to some of the crimes they were charged with, but not to rape. In exchange for these guilty pleas, the prosecutor dropped the rape charges.
Such was the case for Paul Bisengimana, who held the office of bourgmestre, equivalent to a local mayor, in Gikoro commune, Kigali-Rural prefecture. In this capacity, he had administrative authority over the community and the local police force. He was, in fact, tasked with ensuring peace and security. But as cited in the original indictment against him, Bisengimana both participated in and incited massive sexualized attacks against women and girls.
In one incident described in the indictment, Bisengimana came upon a woman named Eugenie and her four children. He allegedly ordered that she and her daughter be raped and that Eugenie’s male children be killed. The indictment charges that Bisengimana’s forces took Eugenie and her daughter, raped them for several days, and then murdered both mother and daughter.
Another allegation against Bisengimana has far-reaching implications in a conflict in which the government is known to have used propaganda to dehumanize the enemy. He allegedly ordered that Tutsi women be raped in order to ascertain whether they “tasted” any different from Hutu women. Speaking to a crowd of approximately 300 Interahamwe—the term used for civilians who aided in the violence against Tutsis—Bisengimana instructed them: “Kill the Tutsis, rape the Tutsi women before killing them and loot their properties without forgetting to burn or destroy their houses.” Previously, when asked by a young Hutu for permission to rape Tutsi girls, Bisengimana answered: “Do not keep them as wives, but rather rape them to make a difference and then kill them afterwards.” The court additionally documented that he said that Tutsi women and girls should be raped before being murdered because they “give the country a bad smell.”
As if these actions weren’t horrific enough, Bisengimana also reportedly exploited his role as mayor to trick civilians into feeling safe. By mid-April 1994, many Rwandan civilians had become refugees, desperately seeking protection from conflict wherever they could find it. As mayor, Bisengimana brought thousands of refugees to a church under the guise of leading them to safety. However, outside the church doors, he and his men were busy transporting soldiers, Interahamwe, weapons, and fuel. On April 13, Bisengimana ordered a massacre. Amidst the carnage, his soldiers cut off countless women’s breasts and inserted spears into their vaginas. Nearly all of the refugees in the church were killed.
Ten years later, in April 2004, Bisengimana was charged at the ICTR with genocide and complicity in genocide as well as murder, extermination, and rape as crimes against humanity. But on December 7, 2005, the prosecution withdrew the counts of genocide, complicity in genocide, and rape as a crime against humanity in exchange for Bisengimana’s guilty plea for murder and extermination as crimes against humanity. The brutal sexualized violence that he inflicted went ignored.
Unfortunately, Bisengimana isn’t the only one. Another war criminal, Joseph Nzabirinda, was originally charged with genocide and complicity in genocide as well as rape and extermination as crimes against humanity. The prosecutor cited the events of April 22, 1994, when thousands of Tutsis were gathered at Kabakobwa hill. Soldiers and the Interahamwe allegedly launched a massive attack against them, killing thousands; the few girls and women who survived were hunted like prey, raped, and then killed. The indictment also tells the story of one young Tutsi girl named Immaculee Kagwesage. Nzabirinda allegedly forced her to follow him to a house where he and others raped her over the course of several days. She was later killed along with her sister, Kayitesi.
In December 2006, Nzabirinda pled guilty to aiding and abetting murder. Despite accounts of his sexualized violence—despite the fact that Nzabirinda is reported to have raped Kagwesage and ordered innumerable girls to be attacked—he was spared the consequences. The prosecutor filed an amended indictment, leaving out the charge of rape. In two more cases—Prosecutor v. Rugambarara and Prosecutor v. Serushago—the same procedural dance occurred. The original indictments included charges for rape as a crime against humanity. Yet in both cases the prosecutor filed amended indictments. The charges of rape were dropped.
Even in instances where rape in conflict is prosecuted, the charges are admittedly difficult to prove in an international court of justice. According to the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations, the judgments of tribunals like the ICTR often do not include findings on rape or other forms of sexualized violence because such findings are not legally required to determine a suspected war criminal’s overall guilt or innocence. In other words, since the three main atrocity crimes prosecuted at the international court—genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes—can be proved without reference to rape, rape is often overlooked.
But there are consequences when those who have reportedly committed mass sexualized violence are not held accountable for their brutality. The use of a simple plea agreement to rescind rape charges sends the wrong message to combatants in both present and future conflicts: It implies that any sexualized violence they commit or incite will not be met with legal action. In addition to encouraging the use of rape by rendering it a conviction easily escapable in court, it leaves the thousands of women and girls who have already suffered without justice.
Michelle Seyler is a graduate of American University with a major in international communications and received her J.D. from the University of the District of Columbia, David A. Clarke School of Law. She blogs at 4WomenWorldWide.com. You can find her on Twitter @4WomenWorldwide.
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