Goucher College has suspended a visiting French professor from teaching after the Baltimore institution was presented with charges that he was directly involved in the 1994 genocide in his home country of Rwanda. While some view the charges as credible -- he strongly denies them -- some human rights officials are dubious, wondering if the professor is really in trouble back home over controversial statements he made questioning whether what took place in Rwanda was a genocide.
Sanford Ungar, Goucher's president, made the announcement Saturday in a letter he sent to professors, students and their parents. He noted that an NBC News producer approached him in December and said he was working on a “series about international war criminals who are living and working in the United States.” Then, the producer told a disbelieving Ungar that Leopold Munyakazi, a visiting French professor at Goucher, was one of them. In tow with the NBC camera crew was a Rwandan prosecutor who asserted that his government had eyewitnesses who insisted that Munyakazi had “participated directly” in the 1994 genocide in Rwanda -- in which the Hutu majority attacked the Tutsi minority and an estimated 800,000 people died from the violence.
Munyakazi was invited to teach at Goucher for two semesters via the Scholar Rescue Fund -- a program of the Institute of International Education “that provides fellowships for established scholars whose lives and work are threatened in their home countries” -- and began last fall. Ungar’s letter states that Goucher was aware, at the time of his hire, that Munyakazi “faced numerous threats in his home country” and that he had “been accused of making controversial statements about the Rwandan government and about the nature and definition of genocide.”
An Interpol advisory echoing these claims from the Rwandan government was also issued last year -- although Ungar noted he was not aware of it -- and Munyakazi is still wanted for charges of “genocide.” Still, these earlier accusations did not suggest any involvement in committing genocide, something the Rwandan prosecutor who accompanied NBC News to Goucher now claims.
College Response and the Professor's Denial
Though Munyakazi “vehemently denies” any involvement in genocide, and the evidence presented is insufficient either to exonerate or convict him, Goucher decided to take preemptive action against him, Ungar said.
“Considering the seriousness of the allegations, however, I felt it to be in the best interests of the college community to remove Dr. Munyakazi from his teaching duties until we could investigate further,” Ungar stated in the letter. “I want to make it clear that this action in no way reflects a judgment about Dr. Munyakazi or about the charges that have been made against him.”
In an e-mail to Inside Higher Ed, Munyakazi addressed the actions of the college.
"I understand the measure taken by the management of Goucher College since they are mainly concerned about the image of their institution," Munyakazi stated. "But it may be considered as a quick decision because it's only based on allegations that must be grounded by facts (that are still lacking!)."
He called the allegations against him "quite false" and noted he has detailed their flaws to NBC News. Further, he stated that the government in Rwanda is trying "to hinder my application for asylum in the United States of America." He noted that, after the 1994 genocide, he was imprisoned without formal charges in Rwanda for five years.
"Now that I have an opportunity to speak out about their wrongdoings against the Rwandan people, they try to forge and fabricate allegations against me, in order to muzzle me," he said.
Munyakazi and his family will remain in college-owned housing off campus until the end of the spring semester, per an earlier agreement with the Scholar Rescue Fund. Ungar said in an interview with Inside Higher Ed that he has received mostly positive comments from the college community regarding the handling of the situation. About the move to suspend Munyakazi from teaching, he only said that it was the college’s “most important duty to protect students.”
Kate Pipkin, Goucher spokeswoman, said the college has not offered any counseling or related services to its students, as none have asked for it. Still, she added that students are “very eager to talk” about this situation among themselves and said some are planning to host a forum about the topic at some point soon on campus.
At least one professor close to Munyakazi expressed concern about commenting on the matter and did not wish to be interviewed. Also, officials from IIE’s Scholar Rescue Fund did not return calls for comment yesterday.
Though the NBC series -- including interviews with Goucher officials regarding this case -- will air at some point in the next two months, some are not convinced that the charges against Munyakazi can be substantiated.
Alison Des Forges, senior advisor for the Human Rights Watch’s Africa division, said her organization has found some serious shortcomings in the Rwandan indictment of Munyakazi and believes he is being wrongly accused. She pointed out that, after having been jailed for five years, Munyakazi was released without trial. That was an uncommon move for the Rwandan government at the time, Des Forges said, suggesting that it probably had no reason to keep him in custody. In 1999, she said he become a professor at the Kigali Education Institute, a major public university in the national capital.
“He wasn’t hiding out in the bush,” Des Forges said. “He was there for everyone to see. Seeing that the university hired him and he was a very public figure, this seems to indicate that he had nothing to hide.”
After a few years, she said, he properly acquired a passport -- a difficult task in Rwanda, unlike in the United States – and left the country “publicly through the front door” without any standing criminal charges.
Once in the United States, Des Forges said Munyakazi was of no interest to Rwandan officials until he gave a controversial 2006 speech at the University of Delaware, in which he debated whether or not the word genocide could be properly used to describe the 1994 atrocities in his country.
“I refer to it as civil war, not genocide; it was about political power. Ethnicity is not really understood about Rwanda; in Rwanda there are no tribes, there are social groups, they are one single people,” said Munyakazi, then a French professor at Montclair State University in New Jersey, at the October 2006 debate.
U.S. authorities have been aware of the case since the 2006 Rwandan indictment, Des Forges said, but have decided not to take action. She said the method by which the Rwandan prosecutors have resurrected Munyakazi’s case raises suspicions.
“If a judicial authority wants to exercise its functions in another country, there are certain procedures that need to be followed,” Des Forges said. “In this case, they weren’t followed. As I understand it, the Rwandan prosecutors were on visitors’ visas and accompanied an NBC television crew around the country. This is questionable at best. Perhaps they found that going through the official channels had not been sufficiently responsive to their desires.”
Munyakazi is one of many individuals living in the United States who are being pursued by the Rwandan government for war crimes, Des Forges said, noting that there were no other academics being questioned. Human Rights Watch has been asked by two of the individuals being questioned (and by NBC) for comment on the allegations put forth by the Rwandan government. She said the organization believes the two individuals are are being wrongfully accused.
“Any attempt to establish facts 15 years after a crime, especially for such as genocide, is difficult,” Des Forges said. “The claims do not seem to be well substantiated. Based on my reading thus far of the two indictments, they have some serious failings.”
For example, she said the Rwandan indictment accuses Munyakazi of inciting a militia -- from a political party rivaling his own -- to arms. She argued that this claim does not hold water.
“It would be like accusing a Democrat of organizing the Young Americans for Freedom,” Des Forges said. “It just doesn’t make sense.”
She said she is unsure of what Munyakazi will do next but noted that he has made calls for his sanctuary in the United States. Although she was not aware of any other foreign academics from the Scholar Rescue Fund falling victim to similar claims, she said she would not be surprised. As for Human Rights Watch, she said it would continue to seek justice for all in relation to the Rwandan genocide.
“Through my work, I have been given the charge and opportunity of delivering justice,” said Des Forges, who has served as an expert witness on 11 international tribunals on the Rwandan genocides. “I have seen how a lot of prosecutors draw arguments and where their weaknesses lie. If people are wrongly accused of a crime or the prosecuting suffers in other ways, the victims ultimately suffer more. We just keep trying to make the process as serious and credible as possible.”