After less than three hours of deliberations, a federal jury Friday convicted a Rwandan man who attempted to win asylum in the United States by allegedly lying when he denied he had committed rapes and murders during the country’s 1994 genocide.
Jean Leonard Teganya, who had settled in Canada before illegally crossing the border into Maine four years ago, was found guilty of five counts of perjury and fraud after a five-week trial marked by harrowing accounts from survivors of the ethnic violence, which killed an estimated 800,000 minority Tutsis in just 100 days.
“When asylees get here, we open our door to them. We welcome them. We protect them,” Assistant US Attorney George Varghese said during his closing arguments in Boston federal court Friday. “The defendant, a tormentor . . . tried to take advantage of that.”
Teganya, who denied any role in the massacres and testified in his own defense, showed no reaction as the verdict was read. His wife wept as Teganya’s uncle and other supporters tried to comfort her.
“I’m deeply disappointed,” said Scott Lauer, Teganya’s attorney. Lauer did not say whether he planned to appeal the conviction. Teganya, 47, faces a maximum of five years in prison, and will probably be deported after he completes his sentence. He will be sentenced in July.
It was the third case in recent years of a Rwandan national convicted for concealing links to the genocide to obtain asylum. In 2012, Prudence Kantengwa, a Hutu who was living in Boston, was sentenced to 21 months for lying on her asylum application about her affiliation with the party that orchestrated the genocide, the National Republican Movement for Democracy and Development.
A year later, Kantengwa’s sister, Beatrice Munyenyezi, a Hutu mother of three who had moved to New Hampshire, was convicted of lying about the killings and rapes she ordered as head of a roadblock in Butare, where Tutsis were stopped, checked for identification, and often murdered on the spot. Jurors in that case returned their verdict in four hours.
The verdict in Boston came as Rwanda is marking the 25th anniversary of the genocide.
Witnesses said Teganya led a group of Hutu extremists and soldiers who raped and killed Tutsis seeking refuge in a hospital in April 1994, when he was a medical student living near the grounds. One man said he saw Teganya kill a Tutsi doctor with an ax, ignoring his pleas for mercy.
Teganya fled Rwanda in the aftermath of the genocide and eventually settled in Canada, where he married, had two sons, and lived for 15 years before crossing into the United States.
Lauer said he feared persecution from the Rwandan government, which had imprisoned his father, a Hutu and a local leader of the political party blamed for perpetrating the genocide.
During the trial, Teganya testified that he did not see any dead bodies or hear the screams of people being taken to their deaths.
On his application for asylum and at an immigration hearing, Teganya said that he did not witness any atrocities. During the trial, one witness, a Tutsi who had come to the hospital seeking refuge, said she saw dozens of bodies rotting behind the hospital maternity ward.
Asked at trial how he could have missed so much carnage, Teganya said he did not go out of his way to look for it. “I’m not the kind of person who wants to see dead bodies,” Teganya replied. “Why should I want to go there just to see dead bodies?”
One of the jurors, Brian Ross, a 58-year-old recruiter from the South Shore, said that explanation seemed far-fetched.
“I had a tough time believing that after walking back and forth around the [campus] that he didn’t see anything,” Ross said after the verdict. “It’s tough to believe with that many people being killed.”
The defense had argued that prosecutors’ witnesses, who were flown in from Rwanda, were motivated to provide a false narrative about Teganya by financial incentives and fear of the current Rwandan government, an authoritarian regime.
Just before resting his case, Lauer cited the amount of money each government witness received: a $71 per diem for food and a $40 reimbursement fee for each day leading up to their testimony.
During his summation, Lauer asked the jury to remember the inconsistencies in the testimony of some of the most damning prosecution witnesses: the woman who claimed Teganya raped her at the hospital, an experience she never recounted in previous trials about the genocide or in a book that included her story; another rape victim who initially said she was led away to be sexually assaulted by three uniformed soldiers but now identified Teganya as the ringleader; or the former Hutu militiaman who said he trained alongside Teganya and other students to become killing machines but on the stand struggled to name any student besides the defendant.
“He didn’t know anyone else’s name because he hadn’t been given any other names to accuse,” Lauer said.
He asked the jury to consider the testimony of Teganya’s former classmates in high school and medical school, who described a serious student with no strong political opinions. How could that student turn into a “marauding” rapist and killer? Lauer asked.
“Without a doubt, he is an innocent man,” said Jack Vercollone, a volunteer from a Catholic discussion group that visits inmates in jail who befriended Teganya while he awaited trial in a Plymouth County jail. The group donated Christmas presents to Teganya’s sons, who are 9 and 11.
“An innocent man has been condemned,” Vercollone said. “I just think they got it wrong.”
Ross, the juror, said he believed the testimony of the government’s witnesses. He said he was also swayed to convict Teganya by the defendant’s own admission that he entered Canada with a false passport and his statements to immigration authorities that he was desperate not to return to his native country.
“That was big . . . him saying he would do anything not to go back to Rwanda,” Ross said.
Maria Cramer can be reached at email@example.com.