Friday, Apr 20, 2018
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Bowling Green student denies role in Rwandan genocide

BOWLING GREEN - Is Pierre-Celestin Rwigema an accomplice to genocide? Or is he a scapegoat for the Rwandan government he once headed?

Mr. Rwigema, a student at Bowling Green State University, was Rwanda's prime minister until February, 2000, when he resigned under pressure from parliament, which accused him of corruption.

The country's government wants him extradited to face charges that he aided the systematic murder of 800,000 ethnic Tutsis in 1994, the year before he rose to power. Those allegations are supported by some human rights activists.

But others caution that no hard evidence has been produced to tie Mr. Rwigema to the massacres.

Mr. Rwigema denies any involvement in the genocide and said the corruption charges were trumped up to drive him out of office.

“I have been accused formally of mismanagement of funds,” he said yesterday. “I went before parliament and was found not guilty. Why, if I was a killer, did they not accuse me in parliament? The charges are not correct. It's political.”

University officials said they checked with the FBI and the U.S. State Department before letting Mr. Rwigema enroll in the summer and were told that the allegations against him are unsubstantiated.

Amy Radetsky, a State Department official who focuses on Rwanda, said Mr. Rwigema cannot be sent back to his homeland because the United States has no extradition treaty with Rwanda.

He is not sought as a suspect by the United Nations tribunal that's investigating the genocide.

“We have no reason to extradite him until the U.N. tribunal should come up with some evidence, and they haven't even targeted him for investigation,” Ms. Radetsky said.

Officials with the U.N. International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, based in Tanzania, could not be reached for comment.

Mr. Rwigema, 47, applied for political asylum when he entered the United States on a visa in July, 2000. His application is pending.

Guillaume Kavaruganda, first secretary of the Rwandan Embassy in Washington, said investigators from his country want to talk with Mr. Rwigema and would like him to be extradited.

“This is a matter for the United States to judge, but if they would consider our position we would be happy,” he said. Rwanda's government wants “to see if he was involved, what he is accused of, if there's evidence, and make a decision.”

Rwandan refugees have urged U.S. officials to reject Mr. Rwigema's bid for asylum.

“His regime committed massive violations of human rights,” said Jean Marie-Vianney Higiro, a refugee who helped found the group Peace, Justice and Development in Rwanda. “He was in a position of power.”

Mr. Higiro, who fled Rwanda with his family when the mass killings began in 1994, is a communications professor at Western New England College in Springfield, Mass.

Mr. Higiro said he believes Mr. Rwigema should be tried as a war criminal.

“He could say he wasn't involved in the genocide in 1994. But after he took power, the government massacred hundreds of thousands of refugees in camps along the border,” Mr. Higiro said. “In 1996-97, the government killed 200,000 civilians in refugee camps in the Democratic Republic of Congo. If you are the head of government and the army, you are responsible.

“If there is real justice, he would be a witness. He knows who carried out the atrocities. Let him testify against the current regime. But he won't go back. They would like to see him dead because he knows a lot. Too much. He would be dead if he went back to Rwanda.''

As Rwanda's prime minister for 41/2 years, Mr. Rwigema, a Hutu, was part of a coalition government that restored a measure of stability to the central African nation. He met foreign dignitaries and once spoke at the United Nations.

These days, Mr. Rwigema lives in a small, plain off-campus apartment and spends his days attending classes toward a master's in business administration. He chose Bowling Green State University on the recommendation of a friend who's a former student.

“It's a very nice place, nice people,” he said.

Dr. Vinod Jain, director of international business programs at the unversity, encountered Mr. Rwigema during a three-hour introductory session for MBA students in July.

“He's OK. He's just like any other student,” Dr. Jain said. “Very respectable.”

He said he believes the university did the right thing by accepting Mr. Rwigema, “provided they do their checks.”

“In developing countries, when a person in high authority leaves, things happen,” Dr. Jain said. “People who are now in authority often bring charges against people who were in authority before. What the situation is with our friend here, I don't know.”

Some students said they were unnerved to learn of Mr. Rwigema's presence on campus.

“That's scary,” said Heidi Hull, 20, a broadcast journalism student from Canton. “You have someone who could be behind the killing of so many people, and here he is. It's just hard to imagine that someone with so much power is going to school where I am going to school. I can't believe he's here.”

Mena Naumchick, 20, a dance major from Connecticut, said she's uneasy but trusts the university's judgment.

“If the school's let him in, I'm assuming they're taking into account he's not a bad person,” she said. “It's such a heinous thing he's accused of.”

Mr. Rwigema became prime minister in August, 1995, less than a year after minority Tutsi rebels defeated the Hutu-dominated Rwandan army. Before that, he was education minister in the national unity government that took power in July, 1994.

He said his selection as head of the government resulted in part because he was a part of a moderate Hutu faction that was not involved in the violence.

“I was taken after the killing and evaluated and interviewed ... and appointed prime minister,” he said.

From April to July, 1994, a Hutu-led government sponsored the mass killings of Tutsis, who were rounded up and shot or hacked to death with machetes.

Alison Desforges, senior adviser of Human Rights Watch's African division, has studied and written a book about the Rwandan genocide.

She said it is not clear-cut whether Mr. Rwigema was involved in the 1994 genocide.

“Evaluating the guilt of someone accused of genocide is complex,'' she said. “There's always a bit of false testimony and allegations involved in any case. We have not investigated [Mr. Rwigema]. I'm not going to say he is an innocent man or a guilty man.

“The real question here is whether these allegations are politically motivated. Why is he accused now?''

While he was prime minister, no one in the government accused Mr. Rwigema of being involved in genocide, Mrs. Desforges said.

“After he leaves the government, he lives in Rwanda for three months. But no charges are filed. Then he leaves the nation for personal reasons. Still no charges. But when he stays abroad for political reasons and refuses to return, his name appears on a list of people accused of genocide,'' she said. “This pattern raises serious questions about what kind of proof they have.”

She said the genocide was government-sponsored. Losing a war against a guerrilla movement, the Rwandan government led by Hutu extremists used the minority Tutsis as scapegoats.

“You had a small number of political actors who were threatened by the loss of political power. In order to extend political power, they used the minority population - who were the same ethnic group as the guerrillas - as scapegoats.”

The violence was brutal, she said. Entire families died together. Men, women, children huddled together in the corner of buildings, their bodies hacked to pieces.

“The most important thing here was the role of the state in the organization of the genocide,” she said. “This was not mad mob violence. This was 20th century genocide. It was organized by the state.''

Blade state editor Mitch Weiss contributed to this report.

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