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The Prosecutor v. Jean-Paul Akayesu

Pierre-Richard Prosper, Special Counsel and Policy Advisor to the Ambassador at Large for War Crimes Issues 

 The case that I prosecuted on behalf of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda was the case of the Prosecutor v. Jean-Paul Akayesu. It happened to be the first time that the Genocide Convention had been put into practice. In the past, scholars wrote about it, diplomats discussed it, students learned from it; but it was never used until this case. It was, I have to say, quite an experience, being part of this process, for many reasons. I think the first part was probably just factually, dealing with the case itself. Jean-Paul Akayesu was the mayor of this community called Taba, and in Rwanda the mayor is the most important person in the day-to-day life of the average citizen in Rwanda. That person was basically like a godfather, a parent figure. If you needed anything from the mayor, he would be the person to either provide it for you—for example, if you needed a license, you would go to the mayor. If you needed a birth certificate, marriage certificate, you went to the mayor. If you had a dispute, a family dispute, you went to the mayor. If you had a dispute with your neighbor, you went to the mayor. Anything you needed, that person would resolve it for you. So when a mayor gave you orders, you generally followed it. What happened in my case, in the case of Akayesu, was that he directed and incited the population in his community to commit genocide. He led the militias; he led his police officers; he held meetings telling the people to get the Tutsis before they get you. He even told them to kill any children, to kill pregnant women, because they did not want the offspring to be born and to come back twenty or thirty years later and to become like the RPF, to come back and invade the country. Also, what happened in Taba, women were sexually violated, and that was a big component of the case, of the trial. We had evidence of hundreds, if not thousands, of women in that area having been raped by the militias. And it wasn’t rape in a sense where someone may think that the soldiers were trying to gain some sort of satisfaction. What it was, it was a form of torture; it was a form of humiliation, degradation. What they were trying to do was to basically, in their minds, put the Tutsi, the Tutsi women, in their place so they could no longer function as part of the society. And you couple that with the fact that the men had been killed; the community leaders and intellectuals had all been killed; the women had seen their children being killed. They were beaten, they had no hope. And then they were systematically raped multiple times. From that perspective, the case had not only—obviously, a lasting impact on me, but I think it was something that hopefully that the world can draw lessons from, and become more aware of these things and hopefully prevent it from happening in the future.

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About Pierre-Richard Prosper