In 2014, a border patrol agent found Jean Leonard Teganya walking down a road in Maine, carrying a backpack and filthy from a journey through the dense Canadian woods.
The Rwandan national had crossed the border into the United States to seek asylum, Teganya told the agent. His father was a leader in the Hutu political group responsible for the 1994 genocide that took the lives of at least 800,000 Tutsis, Rwanda’s ethnic minority, over 100 days. Teganya said he feared he would be killed if he returned to his native land.
But what he truly feared was facing justice for his own crimes, federal prosecutors said Monday. Two decades ago, Teganya ordered the killings, rapes, and beatings of innocent Tutsis during a horrific raid of a hospital in the city of Butare, where he was a medical student, the prosecutors said.
“The defendant had a problem,” Assistant US Attorney Scott L. Garland told a jury in US District Court in Boston during opening arguments in the trial against Teganya. “His problem was that his application for asylum would be denied if the US found out what he had done in Rwanda, because persecutors cannot claim asylum.”
Teganya, 47, is charged with five counts of fraud and perjury for lying on his asylum application and at an immigration hearing. Under federal law, a person who participated in genocide is barred from obtaining asylum in the United States. If convicted, Teganya would face a maximum sentence of five years.
He is not on trial for his alleged actions in Rwanda 25 years ago, but the massacre of the Tutsi minority will serve as the backdrop for the trial. Prosecutors will focus in particular on the attack at the Butare hospital, where Tutsis had fled seeking safety from Hutu extremists. Their hopes were misplaced, said Phil Clark, an assistant professor at the University of London who has studied the Rwandan genocide and was the first witness called by prosecutors.
“Many Tutsis sought refuge in places that they trusted
. . . churches, schools, and hospitals,” Clark said in court. “In the vast majority of recorded cases of the genocide, when Tutsis tried to seek refuge in these places, more often than not they were killed.”
About 20 witnesses are expected to testify about the attack at the hospital, many of them survivors who saw Tutsis dragged from their hospital beds and beaten to death, Tutsi girls and women raped, and nurses killed, prosecutors said.
Teganya ordered Hutus to commit some of these acts, pointing out the Tutsis who should be targeted, prosecutors said. He himself killed and raped Tutsis, they said. One of his alleged rape victims is slated to testify, prosecutors said.
Teganya’s lawyers portrayed an entirely different image of the suspect, who entered the courtroom wearing thick, black glasses and a dark suit and tie.
Now a married father of two, Teganya fled Rwanda after the genocide because any Hutu could be implicated in the violence, said Scott Lauer, one of his lawyers. He became a medical assistant in the Congo, moved to Kenya, and obtained a master’s degree in economics in India, Lauer said.
His father was arrested and imprisoned without a trial and Teganya knew he could not return to Rwanda, so he moved to Canada and settled in Montreal, Lauer said.
When Canadian authorities denied him asylum, he went to the United States for help, said Lauer, who told the jury that the defense would present witnesses who knew Teganya as a student in Rwanda.
“What do they remember about Jean Teganya?” asked Lauer. “He was studious. He was someone who got along with people. He was mainly known for studying . . . He was not someone who had problems with Tutsis. He was not someone who was an extremist.”
Teganya’s mother was Tutsi, Lauer said.
“The woman who brought him into the world, the woman who raised him is Tutsi,” Lauer said. “The idea that he was raised to hate Tutsis is false.”
When his father was attending political rallies against the Tutsis, Teganya was studying at a Catholic seminary school where Tutsi and Hutu students studied together.
Teganya was elected vice dean, a leadership position reserved for well-respected students, Lauer said.
Lauer urged the jury to scrutinize prosecutors’ witnesses to make sure they truly saw and heard what they claimed. He told jurors to question the motives of witnesses who could have an incentive to lie about Teganya’s actions.
Prosecutors acknowledged there is no fingerprint or surveillance evidence of what happened in the hospital that implicates Teganya. And the passage of time could make witness recollections murky, said Garland, the assistant US attorney.
But testimony will come not only from people who knew Teganya well before the attack at the hospital but also from Hutus who perpetrated violence alongside him, Garland said. Most importantly, he said, Teganya’s own statements to immigration authorities will implicate him.
“When he was asked if he saw any atrocities at the hospital, he said no,” Garland said. “He did that even though some of the atrocities that occurred at the hospital were at his own hands.”