Monday, March 30, 2009

Rwandan professor in fight for his life

By Bill Zlatos
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
Sunday, March 29, 2009

Photo: Munyakazi Family
Leopold Munyakazi, 49, stands with his son Herve (left), 20; wife Catherine, 48; daughter Alicia-Sarah, 6; and son Patrick, 14.

Leopold Munyakazi lived with families in the Pittsburgh area and taught French at Highlands High School in Natrona Heights (U.S State of Pennsylvania) three years ago. Now he wears a monitoring device on his ankle, cannot leave the state of Maryland and faces a deportation hearing in June for overstaying his visa. But that is the least of his problems. In his native Rwanda, he has been charged with genocide, for which he could face life imprisonment.

"How could I participate in genocide when I myself was hiding, when I myself was a target?" said Munyakazi, 49, of Towson, Md., who denies the allegations. "How could I collaborate when the killers were hunting me?"

The charges infuriate Munyakazi's Western Pennsylvania friends, who think of him and his family as their family. They are raising money for his defense.

Munyakazi's plight became a national story after an NBC news team in December burst onto the Goucher College campus in Towson where he was teaching and asked officials if they knew they had hired a man accused of genocide. Goucher suspended Munyakazi for the spring semester.

Munyakazi's Pittsburgh friends say the charges are politically inspired because he is not afraid to tell the truth.

"I wouldn't believe it for a second," said Paul Dougherty, 54, of Highland Park. "If he goes quietly into the night, they'll leave him alone. But he won't do that. He has a conscience."

Rwanda is seeking to have Munyakazi extradited. Andrew Tusabe, an official at the Rwandan embassy in Washington, declined to discuss the case. He referred comment to the Office of the Prosecutor General in Rwanda, who did not respond to an e-mail or a phone call.

Genocide or fratricide

Rwanda, a central African nation nearly the size of Maryland, has about 10.5 million people. Most are Hutus, but the minority Tutsis are perceived to have higher social status.

In April 1994, a plane carrying the country's president, a Hutu, was shot down. Tutsi rebels were suspected, and Hutus rampaged. The country erupted in a 100-day bloodbath. About 800,000 people died, mostly Tutsis.

Munyakazi is a Hutu married to a Tutsi. He says he's a controversial figure in his home country because he criticized both groups and was imprisoned by the Tutsi-backed government from 1994 to 1999 without being charged.

"Some of us were called outside the prison to be beaten, especially the intellectuals," he recalled. "Many died of diarrhea, cholera. Many ... died of gangrene because we couldn't move."

He attended an education conference in Atlanta in 2004 and applied for political asylum. He moved to Pittsburgh that December after learning some Rwandans lived here, including his wife's distant cousin.

Munyakazi's problems began after he took teaching jobs at Montclair State University in New Jersey and, later, Goucher College.

Both positions came with the help of the Scholar Rescue Fund, a program in New York City that gives fellowships to scholars threatened in their home countries.

During an Oct. 25, 2006, speech at the University of Delaware, Munyakazi contended mass killings in Rwanda should not be called "genocide." In Rwanda, it is a crime to deny that genocide took place.

Munyakazi said he is not denying the killings, but argues that Hutus and Tutsis are social, not ethnic, groups. He considers the murders "fratricide," the killing of brother against brother.

Munyakazi repeated his argument during a Nov. 15, 2006, lecture at Montclair State attended by the Rwandan ambassador to the United States.

He also says Tutsis and Hutus are equally guilty in the killings, a position he admits is controversial and puts him at odds with many accounts that place blame on Hutus.

"Both sides were killing people who did not share their opinion," he said.

Rwanda issued an arrest warrant Nov. 10, 2006, after his first speech and a second warrant Sept. 18. The government indicted him Oct. 20. The charges include genocide, conspiracy to commit genocide, denial of genocide and crimes against humanity, according to documents he said he obtained from Goucher College and read to the Tribune-Review.

The school declined to release the documents to the newspaper.

The Scholar Rescue Fund did a background check on Munyakazi before offering him the fellowship, said Henry Jarecki, co-founder and chairman. It knew he was in a Rwandan prison, but found no accusations of genocide.

The Associated Press reported in February that Alison Des Forges, senior adviser to the Africa division of Human Rights Watch, reviewed a copy of the indictment and said it contained details that did not "fit historical facts of the time." For example, it was unlikely that Munyakazi organized a militia associated with a party that opposed the party he was affiliated with, Des Forges said.

"You have to ask whether the rest of the indictment is careless of those kinds of facts," she told the wire service.

Des Forges died in a Feb. 12 plane crash near Buffalo.

Brilliant, eloquent man

Munyakazi worked as a waiter and lived above a former Indian restaurant in Highland Park when he met Dougherty. The two became friends, and Dougherty invited him to live with his family.

"He's one of the gentlest, humblest guys you'll ever meet," Dougherty said.

Through Dougherty, Munyakazi became friends with Jim and Nancy Lutz of Mt. Lebanon.

"His kids call us grandma and grandpa," said Jim Lutz, 70, a retired teacher in the Mt. Lebanon School District, who describes Munyakazi as a brilliant, eloquent man who perseveres because of faith in God.

Lutz drove him to job interviews, including one with Highlands School District. Spokeswoman Misty Chybrzynski confirmed he taught there from October 2005 to June 2006. She was unaware of genocide charges.

Munyakazi maintains that if he were suspected of genocide in 1999, he never would have been released from prison and allowed to travel abroad. Munyakazi said he has six affidavits from Tutsis he saved by giving them Hutu identification cards.

His deportation hearing has nothing to do with the genocide charges; his visitor's visa expired, said Brandon A. Montgomery, spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Washington. Citing privacy issues, Montgomery would not confirm or deny that Munyakazi requested asylum.

Munyakazi's Pittsburgh friends stand behind him.

"The thing about Leopold and Pittsburgh is that there were numerous people who met him and loved him and wanted to help him and his family," Dougherty said.

About Leopold Munyakazi

1960 -- Born a Hutu in Rwanda. He disputes published accounts saying he was born 10 years earlier.1980 -- Married Catherine, a Tutsi. They will have five children.

1984 -- Began teaching at National University of Rwanda; wrote articles criticizing Rwanda's government. He holds a doctorate in linguistics and phonetics from the University of Nice in France.

1992 -- Elected secretary general of the Federation of Rwandan Unions.

1993 -- Dismissed from job as secretary general.

1994 -- The massacre begins. Munyakazi and his family escaped the militia, but he later was imprisoned without charges.

1999 -- Released from prison, he worked for Kigali Institute of Education.

2004 -- Attended international conference in Atlanta and sought political asylum. Moved to Pittsburgh that December.

2005 -- Taught French at Highlands High School.

2006 -- Reunited with his wife after two years apart. Secured teaching position at Montclair State University in New Jersey. Delivered controversial lecture at University of Delaware and a similar talk at Montclair State. The Rwandan government issued an arrest warrant charging him with genocide and other crimes.

2008 -- Reunited with his three youngest children. Took a job at Goucher College in Maryland.

2009 -- Awaiting a deportation hearing.

Bill Zlatos can be reached at or 412-320-7828.

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Related Materials:

Dr. Leopold Munyakazi's arrest a disgrace

On Trail of War Criminals, NBC News Is Criticized

To Catch a War Criminal? Why is NBC being so cagey about its new series?

Prof Leopold Munyakazi deserves your full support

Open letter to Sanford J. "Sandy" Ungar, President of Goucher College with regard to Dr Leopold Munyakazi's case


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