Did Beatrice Munyenyezi lie to get into this country?
Munyenyezi says she fled Rwanda for her safety, but prosecutors say she was running from her own crimes.
ON A GRAY AFTERNOON in June, Beatrice Munyenyezi takes a seat in the living room of a two-story house in Manchester, New Hampshire, three blocks from the Merrimack River and two from the Piscataquog. Forty-two years old, Munyenyezi is at times a bold dresser, wearing high heels and shiny slacks, her nails colored brightly, her hair braided tightly. On this Sunday afternoon, she wears a billowy shirt and sandals, her hair brushed back casually. She sits next to a curtained window that guards dark more than it lets in light. Soon she is joined by her three daughters — a college freshman, 18, and twin high school juniors, 17, who await an afternoon of study and a leisurely meal of beans, rice, and chicken with their mother.
Munyenyezi, a Rwandan refugee and resident of New Hampshire since 1998, was arrested in 2010 and charged with immigration fraud by federal prosecutors. They say she played an “active and enthusiastic” role in the genocide that swept through her homeland in 1994, then lied about the crimes to gain US citizenship. A conviction would mean loss of that citizenship, up to 10 years in prison, and, potentially, deportation.
Munyenyezi denies the charges. Her case means much for the fate of Munyenyezi, of course, but it also poses a bigger question: Can the US legal system, in a federal courtroom in Concord, New Hampshire, find the truth about what happened nearly 20 years ago in Rwanda?
A jury of 12 deadlocked in a first trial, forcing a mistrial in March 2012. Afterward, defense attorneys argued to a federal magistrate that the trial showed the accusations against Munyenyezi are caught in a tangle of relationships complicated by contemporary Rwandan politics. Munyenyezi, who spent nearly two years without bail in the Strafford County Jail, was released in April to house arrest. She awaits a new trial.
Munyenyezi carries herself with a surety that can move quickly from reserve to engagement, from elegant pensiveness to blunt opinion. A speaker of Kinyarwandan, Rukiga, and French, she is now fluent in English, too, and during an hour of conversation in the living room she shifts among three distinct moods.
There is joy, as her girls — the oldest born in Rwanda, the twins in Kenya — talk of summer plans, including one daughter’s seven-week course at Brown University. There is frustration, as the topic turns to her own education, which was cut short, again, in 2010. Munyenyezi was only three semesters from earning a bachelor’s degree in politics and society at the University of New Hampshire at Manchester when police arrived at the house and took her away. “I worked so hard to get where I was,” she says. “I had no idea I would be put in jail.” And there is introspection, which comes when the conversation lulls, as it occasionally does. Her eyes fall to stare at her outstretched legs. Her arms hug her chest. In these moments, Munyenyezi seems lost, and there is little to do but wonder who she is.
RWANDA, A CENTRAL AFRICAN NATION roughly the size of New Hampshire, is home to two main groups: a Hutu majority and a Tutsi minority. Intermarriage is not uncommon, and group distinctions have historically been as much about class or status as ethnicity. There is a political dynamic to the definitions, too, particularly since German colonizers supported Tutsis as rulers of the land a century ago and Belgians established a system of identification cards in the 1930s to document ethnic difference. Hutu reprisals before and after Rwandan independence in 1962 killed thousands of Tutsis and drove tens of thousands more from the country, many north into Uganda.
Munyenyezi was born in 1970 in the village of Rushaki, Rwanda, only a few miles from the Ugandan border. Her father, a Hutu farmer, improved his family’s situation by working occasionally as a bricklayer. Munyenyezi has fond memories of returning home from grade school to help cook sweet potatoes and beans and fetch water from the river after supper.
Though Munyenyezi’s father was illiterate, he sent his oldest son, Jean-Marie Higiro, to Catholic schools, the beginning of an extraordinary academic journey that led to a PhD from the University of Texas. Higiro returned to Rwanda in the late 1980s and rose to a prominent post in government media. He paid for his sister Prudence Kantengwa to attend boarding school. In turn, Kantengwa and her husband would pay for Munyenyezi’s schooling. “In our culture, when you have a better position, it is not for yourself,” Higiro tells me in a recent conversation.
In 1990, the Rwandan Patriotic Front, a Tutsi army based in Uganda, invaded northern Rwanda, sparking a civil war. Munyenyezi’s parents fled their village, but her boarding school was in Gitwe, away from the fighting. It was there that she met Arsene Shalom Ntahobali, a fellow Hutu student, also 20 years old. Ntahobali’s father, Maurice Ntahobali, was rector of the National University of Rwanda. His mother, Pauline Nyiramasuhuko, was minister for women’s development in the Hutu-dominated Rwandan government.
Compromise between the government and the Rwandan Patriotic Front in 1993 further angered Hutu extremists, who had been forming militias and stirring anti-Tutsi sentiment. That year, Munyenyezi and Ntahobali married and moved to Butare, home to the national university. They held a ceremony at the Catholic cathedral there in July. Their first daughter was born two months later, and the young family moved into the Hotel I’Huriro, a three-story compound with guest rooms and a bar that Ntahobali’s parents were building on Butare’s main street.
On April 6, 1994, Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana’s airplane was shot down over Kigali, and Hutu extremists in his party ordered the widespread killing of Tutsis and moderate Hutus. Munyenyezi’s brother feared he would be targeted by both sides, and he fled with his family in an unarmed convoy flying US flags into neighboring Burundi. “We were fortunate not to run [into] roadblocks manned by Hutu militias,” Higiro, now 63, says. “It is only after we crossed into Burundi that I said, ‘Oh, my God, I am free.’ ”
During the following three months, an extremist Hutu government urged ordinary citizens to join soldiers and militia members in an extraordinary task: carrying out the genocide that targeted Tutsis and moderate Hutus, killing an estimated 700,000 people nationwide. In and around Butare, tens of thousands were slain.
On July 3, with the Rwandan Patriotic Front about to seize control of Rwanda and end the genocide, Munyenyezi, then several months pregnant with the twins, rode in a convoy with her powerful relatives, fleeing to the Democratic Republic of Congo along with hundreds of thousands of other Hutus. Munyenyezi, Ntahobali, and their daughter went on to Nairobi, where the twins were born in November. Two months later, Munyenyezi and her husband submitted paperwork seeking refugee status from the United States.
Munyenyezi and Ntahobali were together in Kenya on July 24, 1997, when Ntahobali was arrested. He was brought before the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, a United Nations court set in Tanzania, on charges that would include committing murder and rape as one of the leading militia commanders in Butare. His mother had been arrested days earlier. She would be charged with having helped oversee the genocide in Butare, including a policy of systematic rape, in her position with the national government. Nine months after the arrests, in March 1998, Munyenyezi and her daughters, who had been granted refugee status by the United States because of the genocide, moved to New England.
SOME 6,000 REFUGEES from more than 30 countries have settled in New Hampshire over the past three decades, including dozens of Rwandans beginning in the mid-1990s. Munyenyezi and her three daughters went first to stay with her brother, by then a professor at Western New England University in Springfield. New Hampshire Catholic Charities helped Munyenyezi find a home of her own in Plymouth, New Hampshire. Cathy Bentwood, a Plymouth resident, sponsored Munyenyezi’s transition to life near the White Mountains.
“I just remember her as this sort of sad, forlorn mother with three little kids, wondering, ‘How the heck did I land on Mars?’ ” Bentwood says. “But she always had drive. She knew what she wanted, and she figured out pretty quickly that she wanted to be in Manchester.”
Munyenyezi learned English and found a job with the Manchester Housing and Redevelopment Authority. She earned US citizenship in 2003 and was invited in 2005 with then Manchester mayor Robert Baines to appear on a broadcast called “Finding Refuge in the Queen City” on New Hampshire Public Radio. Munyenyezi spoke briefly during the program of her flight from Rwanda and she talked about acceptance of all refugees by the state’s residents. “I think, in the long run, everybody’s got something to offer,” Munyenyezi said. “And discrimination, I think, will always probably be there, if I can say that. But if we just look in a positive way, live our lives, and, you know, not look at the negative impact, I think our life will be OK.”
An estimated 100,000 to 200,000 people took part in the killing during the Rwandan genocide. In Rwanda, a system of local courts called gacaca has been used to hear more than 1 million cases. The UN’s international tribunal, based in Tanzania, has prosecuted dozens of the most high-profile cases, including those of Munyenyezi’s husband and mother-in-law, among the so-called Butare 6. Testimony in those cases took years, and beginning in 2000, Munyenyezi traveled several times to Tanzania. During 2½ days at the international tribunal in 2006, Munyenyezi testified under oath on her husband’s behalf, saying that she did not see him commit any crimes. She said that she ventured from the Hotel I’Huriro only a few times. “No, I never saw dead bodies,” she testified. “I’ve seen dead bodies in 1990 where I came from, but I didn’t see any dead bodies in Butare.”
Back in Manchester, Munyenyezi had lost her job in a department cutback and was unable to keep up with her bills. She filed for personal bankruptcy in 2008, defaulting on taxes, credit card debt, and a home mortgage of more than $200,000. She forfeited the house and moved into a rental, subsidized with public housing assistance. That same year, her sister, Prudence Kantengwa, was charged in Boston with lying about political affiliations and other relationships in Rwanda when applying for her US visa. She, too, was in Butare in 1994.
By the spring of 2010, Munyenyezi was enrolled full time at UNH Manchester. She earned A’s and was taking a course on political psychology that included study of the Rwandan genocide. She planned to use her degree to find a job helping refugees.
“There was definitely a sense of urgency. She wanted to get to work,” says Melinda Negron-Gonzales, a political science professor and Munyenyezi’s faculty adviser, who counted Munyenyezi among her favorite students. Yet Munyenyezi’s mood darkened when she told Negron-Gonzales that she feared some students in the class might be government informants. “She told me that she believed that enemies from Rwanda — Tutsis, et cetera — were setting her up, almost,” Negron-Gonzales says. Within weeks, Munyenyezi was arrested and placed in the Strafford County Jail.
PROSECUTORS FLEW more than a half-dozen Rwandans to the United States to testify in Munyenyezi’s immigration fraud case in Concord’s federal courthouse in February and March of 2012. The witnesses — some victims of the genocide, others confessed killers — described events in the spring of 1994 at the Hotel I’Huriro and at roadblocks and key locations along Butare’s main street.
Each witness told different, specific stories about Munyenyezi, including: She shot a nun in the head; she poured hot tea on a rape victim; she brought food to men who had spent hours raping women. She was said to have worn a militia uniform and the colors of the ruling Hutu extremist party. One witness for the prosecution, Emmanuel Niyitegeka, said he worked at the roadblock in front of the Hotel I’Huriro with Munyenyezi. “She was the one who would order — who ordered to spare a person or to kill a person,” he told the jury. Though investigators had seized Munyenyezi’s possessions with the expectation of finding incriminating evidence, prosecutors offered no physical proof at trial that she had committed genocide.
Munyenyezi did not take the stand. But family members who say they were in the Hotel I’Huriro during the genocide came to Concord from Rwanda and England to testify on her behalf. Details of events differed, but these witnesses said Munyenyezi committed no crimes, staying indoors to care for her infant daughter and to rest during her pregnancy with the twins.
Her attorneys noted early in the proceedings that no one had accused Munyenyezi of any involvement before 2008, when Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent Brian Andersen began an investigation. Normand Marquis, a Canadian lawyer who represented Munyenyezi’s husband at the international tribunal, wrote in an affidavit that in Tanzania he had attended testimony by 190 witnesses and reviewed another 600 witness statements and 884 exhibits about events in Butare, including at the hotel and roadblock. “In nine years of work in M. Ntahobali’s trial, never did I hear anyone talk about Mrs. Munyenyezi’s involvement in any criminal acts, before Mr. Andersen’s allegations, in his affidavit,” Marquis wrote.
Andersen testified in Concord that his case began in 2008 after the United States “received some information about three different individuals who may have committed violations of the US law.” Munyenyezi was one of them. Andersen had conducted the investigation of her sister, too. The identity of the third person has not been made public.
The agent knew little about Rwanda prior to taking the case. He read books and talked with Alison Des Forges, the lead author of the Human Rights Watch study considered the definitive accounting of the genocide. Then he flew to Rwanda and asked a prosecutor for suggestions of people who could tell him about events in Butare. Andersen was introduced to a prominent victim of the genocide who had testified in previous trials. In that and subsequent interviews, Andersen did not ask potential witnesses to choose from a photo lineup of several people. Instead, he showed photos of one woman: Beatrice Munyenyezi.
In an affidavit, Andersen told the court that most witnesses did not have contact with one another and that he had corroborated their stories with other accounts. But in the trial, Munyenyezi’s lawyers presented evidence showing that key prosecution witnesses who were flown from Rwanda to Concord did know one another. And Munyenyezi’s attorneys challenged inconsistencies between specific accounts witnesses told on the stand in Concord and those they had given to Andersen during interviews in Rwanda, or in prior testimony during investigations and trials at the international tribunal and in Rwanda.
Several of the Concord witnesses had been party to a gacaca trial. According to transcripts entered into evidence in Concord, the witnesses had allegedly collaborated to make false accusations against another defendant in the case. Aloysie Mukankuriza, who testified against Munyenyezi in Concord, had explained under questioning in gacaca how the group of witnesses coordinated testimony against a man named Joseph: “The aim of the plot was to accuse Joseph of genocide, and Claire was to add a rape charge,” Mukankuriza said, according to the transcript.
Two more women mentioned in the gacaca plot had also been brought to Concord from Rwanda as prosecution witnesses against Munyenyezi, but neither was put on the stand after her lawyers questioned Mukankuriza.
Eight months before Munyenyezi’s trial, the international tribunal convicted both her husband and her mother-in-law of genocide and crimes against humanity. US District Court Judge Steven J. McAuliffe ordered that news of those convictions would not be admissible in Munyenyezi’s trial, lest the jury view her as guilty by association. But under direct examination in front of the jury, Andersen mentioned the convictions. At a sidebar with McAuliffe, a prosecutor said Andersen simply misspoke. Mark Howard, an attorney for Munyenyezi, challenged that.
“He’s the only American-speaking professional witness, and he’s the one who screws it up?” Howard said to McAuliffe, adding, “That was on purpose.”
After testimony one day, McAuliffe had cautioned about the translations passing from attorneys to witnesses and back. Questioning was often based upon translations of testimony from trials in Tanzania and Rwanda, with interpreters in Concord adding another layer. McAuliffe pointed out how this could muddy understanding as Howard questioned Mukankuriza with the help of a courtroom interpreter.
“And maybe she didn’t say it that way,” McAuliffe told Howard about a dispute with Mukankuriza over one of her earlier accounts. “Because you’ve got double translations. Kinyarwandan, English, English, Kinyarwandan, Kinyarwandan, English. Probably triple.”
After 12 days of evidence and testimony and four days of deliberations, the jury could not reach a unanimous decision. In an interview later with an Associated Press reporter, one juror said the panel had little faith in the clarity of the translations. The jury, he said, did not think Munyenyezi committed acts of genocide. But, he said, some of them thought she must have known about what her husband and mother-in-law were doing and therefore lied on immigration forms. Two of the jurors were not willing to convict her, according to the juror. McAuliffe declared a mistrial in March 2012.
THE ADMINISTRATION of President Paul Kagame, credited with bringing stability and economic growth to Rwanda over the past decade, keeps control in part by dictating what can and cannot be said about the genocide, complicating the search for truth. “It’s very hard to disentangle the straight pursuit of justice for genocide and the manipulation of genocide for political ends,” says Carina Tertsakian, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch.
A few days after the mistrial in Concord in March, Martin Ngoga, prosecutor general of Rwanda, criticized the result, as well as proceedings for suspects who are living in other countries. “It is no longer time for us to beg for action. They either bring genocide suspects to justice or keep them as their citizens,” Ngoga told The New Times, an English-language newspaper in Kigali. “The choice can’t be ambiguous.”
In early June, Munyenyezi’s brother, Jean-Marie Higiro, now a tenured faculty member at Western New England, tells me he believes that the Rwandan government, through its ally the United States, is targeting his sisters because it can’t get to him. He has served since 2000 in leadership roles of political organizations tied to rebel groups of Rwandan refugees in the Congo. He is now president of a US-based opposition group called the Rally for Unity and Democracy, also connected with rebels. “There is no free space in Rwanda where you can denounce the government,” Higiro says. “Our focus is to have these people in Congo go back home or be resettled elsewhere.”
Higiro wonders if the United States will try to bring an immigration case against him, even though he was ushered from Rwanda under US cover at the beginning of the genocide. “If I had stayed in Rwanda since 1993, do you think I would be free? I think I would be jailed,” he says. “Why? Because some people would have made up stories. That is the problem: The victims of the genocide have been forced to become victimizers.” They are “putting innocent people behind bars.”
His sister Prudence Kantengwa was convicted in May at a trial in Boston of lying on her immigration papers. Her sentencing is set for October.
Prosecutors have told Munyenyezi’s attorneys they sent investigators back to Butare and plan to bring new witnesses from Rwanda to testify at the retrial. Her attorneys say those witnesses may bring a range of new allegations, including that Munyenyezi kept a notebook with names of Tutsis who were to be killed in Butare, and they have asked the judge twice for a trial delay. “The new witnesses allow the government to try an entirely different case than it did in March,” Munyenyezi’s attorneys wrote in a motion in early August. “The government could rely solely on the new Rwandan witnesses and not call at trial any of the Rwandan witnesses it called in the first trial.” Yet much of the case at retrial, if different in the details, will be similar in form: Witnesses will come from half a world away to give intimate accounts, translated time and again, about events that happened nearly 20 years ago. It is hard to imagine that a new group of 12 jurors will have an easier time than the first determining the truth.
In mid-June, Munyenyezi, her twin daughters, and Higiro travel together to the third floor of the family courthouse in Manchester. During a five-minute hearing, a judge returns guardianship of the girls to Munyenyezi. The family walks downstairs to pick up paperwork, then gathers umbrellas and heads to the parking garage in a downpour.
The twins lead the way. One of the girls hopes her summer studies will help prepare her to be a human rights lawyer. The other wants to become a cardio-thoracic surgeon. Munyenyezi follows her daughters across the slick splatter of Amherst Street. In Butare, she lived alongside her husband on those days and nights of his crimes. She has been his defender, and she is married to him still.
Her teen daughters — one hoping to seek justice, the other to heal broken hearts — move swift and sure in cold New Hampshire rain. Munyenyezi, silent behind them, chooses her footing carefully.
Tom Haines, a former Globe staff writer, teaches journalism at the University of New Hampshire. Send comments to email@example.com.