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Leader of Rwandan genocide gets life sentence

Condemned to life in prison as a war criminal and mass killer in the Rwandan genocide, Désiré Munyaneza's unprecedented case will be the road map to future Canadian prosecutions.

Even before the heaviest sentence in Canadian law was imposed on Mr. Munyaneza yesterday, the case had started the long journey through the appeal court, and, eventually, to the Supreme Court of Canada.

The remaining mysteries are how the higher courts hearing the appeal of the conviction will deal with the untested Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes Act, and who among the hundreds of suspects living in Canada may be prosecuted next.

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Mr. Munyaneza, 43, was sentenced to life with no chance of parole for 25 years yesterday on seven counts of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. A merchant's son, he led a team of Hutu murderers in the Butaré region of Rwanda in the spring of 1994.

Mr. Munyaneza, "an educated man of privilege, chose to kill, rape and pillage in the name of the supremacy of his ethnic group, reminding us that every time a man claims to belong to a superior race, a chosen people, humanity is in danger," Justice André Denis said during sentencing.

Much of Mr. Munyaneza's appeal maintains the judge set aside the usual standards for assessing the credibility of witnesses.

The judge did not take into account the criminal records of some victims when assessing their credibility, and dismissed evidence of collusion among witnesses, some of whom were Rwandan anti-genocide activists.

The judge accepted witnesses' identification of Mr. Munyaneza while he was sitting the prisoner's box, even those who weren't able to pick him out of a lineup. Mr. Munyaneza was usually the only black person sitting at the front of the court room when he was identified.

Mr. Munyaneza's lawyer, Richard Perras, said Judge Denis made allowances for fragile witnesses, and accepted the legal standards of the foreign countries where parts of the trial took place, some of which have systems may not be as helpful to the defence as those of Canada. He said this lowered standards and undermined the fairness of the trial.

Marvin Kurz, national legal counsel for B'nai Brith Canada, said that the Supreme Court is unlikely to overturn Mr. Munyaneza's conviction. He said that the genocide law used to convict him was tailored to meet objections raised to the Court's ruling in the landmark 1994 case of former Nazi Imre Finta. The ruling set the evidentiary bar so high prosecutions became impossible.

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"I think the atmosphere in Canada has changed," Mr. Kurz said. "I think this came about in large measure because there was a feeling that Canada had become a haven for war criminals. There is a notion that there cannot be a culture of impunity in Canada."

The Supreme Court of Canada discernibly altered its stand on war crimes five years ago, when it cleared the way for Leon Mugesera to be stripped of his citizenship and deported to Rwanda.

Experts were optimistic that the Munyaneza case will build on the Mugesera ruling to drive a legal dagger through the heart of the Finta decision.

"They set the bar so high [with the Finta case]that there was no point in prosecuting any more," Mr. Kurz said. "When it reaches the SCC this time, I think Mugesera shows that our SCC is very much more sensitive to the war crimes issues than they were in 1994."

Estimates of the number of potential war criminals in the country are as high as 1,500. While the Munyaneza case has opened the door to a run of prosecutions, legal experts warned that only a few are likely to be tried.

"The practical problems of investigation and gathering the evidence are real, and you have to have witnesses who are willing to come forward that are identifiable and credible." University of Toronto law professor Ed Morgan said. The budget for the federal war crimes investigation unit has been frozen since the mid-1990s, points out Bruce Broomhall, international law professor at the Université du Québec à Montreal. "We won't get convictions every year, but they have to send the message regularly enough that we're not a safe haven," Mr. Broomhall said. "But it will take more resources."

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About the Authors
National correspondent

Les Perreaux joined the Montreal bureau of the Globe and Mail in 2008. He previously worked for the Canadian Press covering national and international affairs, including federal and Quebec politics and the war in Afghanistan. More

Justice reporter

Born in Montreal, Aug. 3, 1954. BA (Journalism) Ryerson, 1979. Previously covered environment beat, Queen's Park. Toronto courts bureau from 1981-85. Justice beat from 1985 - present. More

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