Canada moved closer yesterday to living up to the international war-crimes law it helped draft, delivering a guilty verdict to a foreign killer who helped try to exterminate an entire population.
Quebec Superior Court Justice André Denis found Désiré Munyaneza guilty of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide for leading a gang of Hutu murderers and rapists in the 1994 Rwandan massacre.
With the landmark ruling, Canada joins a handful of countries, mainly in Europe, that have successfully prosecuted crimes against humanity.
Canada was among the nations that drafted a 1998 statute that established the International Criminal Court and spelled out the concept of “universal jurisdiction” – the legal principle that allows countries to prosecute crimes against humanity that take place outside their borders. Canada's 2000 war crimes legislation followed suit.
“Canada is one of the biggest champions of international tribunals, but up to now had done nothing to deal with international criminals on its own territory. This will redress that to some extent,” said René Provost, head of the McGill Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism.
While the verdict will help to mitigate Canada's reputation as a haven for war criminals, experts say lack of political will and meagre resources will prevent many more prosecutions.
Only about $3-million of Canada's $15-million annual war-crimes budget goes to criminal investigations and prosecutions, they say. Most of the money goes toward deportations and preventing suspects from getting to Canada.
Mr. Munyaneza's trial, which took place in five countries over two years, cost $4-million.
“There are hundreds of war criminals in Canada, but I would be surprised to see dozens of prosecutions,” said Mr. Provost.
Mr. Munyaneza, 42, was a failed refugee claimant living in Toronto when he was arrested in 2005.
Dozens of witnesses said he helped kill dozens of Rwandans during the 1994 bloodbath that claimed some 800,000 lives, mostly Tutsi. In one episode, the trial was told that he helped place children in sacks to be beaten to death.
Mr. Munyaneza, then 27, ran a store owned by his father in Butaré in southern Rwanda. The store ordered 2,304 machetes from a wholesaler months before the massacre. The court heard that Mr. Munyaneza helped pass them out as the killings began.
Mr. Munyaneza, who faces a mandatory life prison term, will have a sentencing hearing in September. Crown and defence lawyers will argue over parole eligibility dates.
Before the 2000 Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes Act, Canada's legislation was limited to the Second World War, and prosecutions repeatedly ended in failure. Faded memories and the deaths of witnesses made appeal-proof convictions impossible.
Ottawa turned to the immigration system to expel suspects after a 1994 Supreme Court decision ended trials.
Payam Akhavan, a former United Nations war-crimes prosecutor, said the 2000 law is more robust.
“The law and courts today are much more sensitized to the definition of international crimes and the proof required than they were in 1994,” said Mr. Akhavan, now a professor at McGill University.
Mr. Munyaneza's lawyer, Richard Perras, has promised an appeal. While he would not reveal his grounds, the trial bent many Canadian legal conventions.
Many hearings were held in secret, and most of Mr. Munyaneza's victims testified anonymously. Judge Denis sealed 350 pages of his 560-page judgment to protect witnesses from reprisals.
Throughout the trial, Mr. Munyaneza's defence lawyers questioned the independence of interpreters and accused witnesses of collusion.
Key hearings in France, Belgium, Tanzania and Rwanda were held in secret, often under constraints imposed by local judicial systems.
Mr. Munyaneza was a low-level ringleader in the genocide. Rwanda has asked for the extradition of five men believed to be living in Canada who played key roles.
In his ruling, Judge Denis pointed to Quebec City resident Léon Mugesera, who gave a speech in 1992 widely seen as a call to arms to wipe out Tutsis, as one such person.
The Supreme Court upheld Mr. Mugesera's deportation in 2005, but safety concerns have blocked his return to Rwanda.
“He is a considerably more significant player than Mr. Munyaneza,” Mr. Provost said, adding that Mr. Mugesera would be “an excellent candidate” for trial under Canada's war-crimes law.