Lawyers for a New Hampshire woman charged with lying about her role in the 1994 Rwandan genocide say she is the victim of lies by Rwandans who stand to gain and others who would be punished if they didn't link her to the slaughter.
Beatrice Munyenyezi's side of the story was cast in opening statements by defense attorney Mark Howard in a federal courtroom Thursday. She has been incarcerated since her arrest in June 2010.
Prosecutors say she commandeered a roadblock in front of a Butare hotel owned by her husband's family, and from that post ordered countless rapes and killings. They say she lied on documents to enter the United States in 1998 and obtain U.S. citizenship in 2003 when she said she played no role in the genocide and denied any affiliation with an extremist Hutu party responsible for much of the violence.
Howard maintains she was holed up inside the family's hotel, protecting her 1-year-old daughter and sick from her pregnancy with twins who were born months later.
"This case is about lies _ lies that were told about Beatrice Munyenyezi," Howard told the jury of eight men, four women.
Howard described Rwanda's present government is as "an authoritarian regime run by a thug." He said the government controls how people discuss the genocide he said was perpetrated by the Rwanda Patriotic Front that now rules the country.
"It is a crime in Rwanda to say or do anything denying the genocide," Howard said. "When any Rwandan is asked if Beatrice Munyenyezi participated in genocide they have to say yes."
Howard said those serving life sentences for killing during the genocide will have their sentences reduced to 20 years if they identify other participants.
"Do the math," Howard told the jury, noting the genocide took place 17 years ago. "Their motive to identify someone is they get out in just three more years."
The first witness to testify Thursday was Esperance Kayange, who said she watched as her mother and siblings were slaughtered by Hutus in April 1994 _ the start of the genocide. Prosecutor John Capin, in his opening remarks, said Kayange witnessed Munyenyezi ordering rapes and killings at the roadblock in front of her family's hotel, a roadblock set up to identify Tutsis through their national identification cards.
Howard told jurors that Kayange testified at the International Criminal Tribunal on Rwanda (ICTR ) _ the tribunal that convicted Munyenyezi's husband and mother-in-law of genocide and other crimes against humanity and sentenced them to life in prison.
"She testified for 10 days at the ICTR ... and never once mentioned Beatrice," Howard said.
He said the first time Kayenge mentioned Munynyezi's name was in March 2011, when she was questioned by U.S. investigators.
Kayange testified that she saw Tutsis killed by Hutu militia at the roadblock by the hotel and that she saw "Beatrice" carrying a gun at the roadblock on one occasion. She testified Munyenyezi was with the militia on two occasions when they came to the school across the street from the roadblock where Tutsis were being held.
"They would take people to be killed and take women and young girls to be raped," Kayange said, through an interpreter.
She said Munyenyezi was wearing the uniform of the MRND _ the extremist party linked to many of the rapes and killings.
After most of her family was killed, Kayange said she stayed on the run and did not carry her identification card because it identified her as a Tutsi. She was 20 at the time. She said she made her way to the home of her sole, surviving sister, but members of the Hutu militia came and made them open the door. She said she was carried to her sister's bed, where one man put a hammer against her head and threatened to kill her.
"All of them _ there were 16 _ they all raped me, one after the other," Kayenge said.
Kayenge's testimony resumes Friday.
Capin told jurors the evidence would leave them with no doubt that Munyenyezi "acted enthusiastically" in the events of the genocide and lied about it to obtain citizenship.
Howard said Munyenyezi fled Rwanda to protect herself and her daughters and came to this country to make a better life for them.
"Beatrice Munyenyezi is in this country with her family because she deserves to be here," Howard argued.
Her lawyers have said Munyenyezi faces deportation if convicted, and likely would be imprisoned for life if returned to Rwanda.
After jurors were excused for the day, Munyenyezi was allowed to speak for about 15 minutes with her daughters _ 19-year-old Charlene and 17-year-olds Saro and Simba. Munyenyezi smiled broadly, her eyes misting when they said goodbye.
The trial is expected to last 4-to-6 weeks.