Originally published Monday, January 26, 2009 at 9:10 AM

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Seattle researchers document Rwanda tribunal

As a judge for the United Nations' Rwanda war crimes tribunal, Erik Mose has spent a decade studying the most horrific crimes possible. In a clear, strong voice, he has sentenced leaders of the slaughter to life in prison.

AP Legal Affairs Writer


As a judge for the United Nations' Rwanda war crimes tribunal, Erik Mose has spent a decade studying the most horrific crimes possible. In a clear, strong voice, he has sentenced leaders of the slaughter to life in prison.

But when he is asked a basic question before a video camera - how has this work changed you as a person? - tears well. He struggles to say just a few words: "No one can be unaffected."

With the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda preparing to disband by the end of this year, Mose and nearly 50 other judges, lawyers, interpreters, investigators and staff sat down with a team of researchers from Seattle to discuss their experiences. The result is a remarkable set of interviews that explores not only the legal and political obstacles the court has faced, but the personal traumas suffered by those who spend their days seeking justice for genocide.

Batya Friedman, the University of Washington professor who leads the team, says the idea is to turn the videos into a searchable collection that will be available - in English, French and the local language of Kinyarwanda - for many generations. The first are being made public Tuesday.

An expert in the design of information systems, Friedman envisions rural Rwandans projecting the videos onto sheets hung in their villages or searching through clips by cell phone. Legal scholars could learn better ways of setting up international courts. School children could edit clips into their own documentaries, and hip-hop artists could sample them in their music - small steps toward reconciliation and peace.

"What we realized is that the people of the tribunal are going to disperse to the four corners of the globe, and with them would go all of their personal experiences, knowledge, wisdom, insight," she says. "They alone know intimately what about the structure of that tribunal was working. We thought, wouldn't it be amazing if some of their stories could be captured?"

The Rwandan genocide occurred 15 years ago, in spring 1994, after a plane carrying the central African nation's president - a member of the Hutu ethnic majority - was shot down. Hutu extremists had been planning an attack on minority Tutsis as well as moderate Hutus, and the slaughter began the next day.

In a span of about three months, an estimated 800,000 people were killed - many hacked to death with machetes and hoes. The women were systematically raped and tortured, their limbs chopped off. In some cases, pregnant women died as their fetuses were ripped from their wombs.

The U.N., which refused to intervene, set up the war crimes tribunal the next year in neighboring Tanzania. The court has been criticized as inefficient - it has cost more than $1 billion and has only completed about three dozen cases, with dozens more pending - but it has also reached some landmark decisions, including one establishing that such systematic rape could be considered genocide.

Former Seattle U.S. Attorney John McKay has taught that rape-as-genocide case in his law school classes at Seattle University. When retired King County Superior Court Judge Don Horowitz approached him about joining Friedman's research team, he jumped at the chance.

"I mean, what questions could you have asked the judges at Nuremburg that would still be relevant today?" McKay said. "The legal part of it is fascinating, but what stunned me were the personal reflections, the toll on the people who work there."

For Justine Ndongo-Keller, the chief of interpretation and translation, it was disturbed sleep, weight gain and chronic irritability; she said she would explode at her children with little prompting.


For Nigerian prosecutor Charles Phillips, it was agonizing about whether to put a rape victim on the witness stand - knowing that she never told her husband what happened, and that her testimony could destroy their marriage.

And for Jorge Sierralta, the tribunal's staff psychologist, it meant being blind to his own troubles as he counseled others. One day last year, someone asked Sierralta to review files on several employees who had been exhibiting symptoms of mental distress. One of the files was his own, he said.

With funding from the National Science Foundation, the UW and Seattle University Law School, Friedman and her team - including Horowitz, McKay, former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert Utter, Seattle documentary filmmaker Patricia Boiko, and Lisa Nathan, a doctoral student who works with Friedman at the UW's Information School - traveled to Tanzania and Rwanda last fall to conduct the interviews.

They set up shop on an upper floor of the tribunal's headquarters in Arusha, Tanzania, in rooms looking out on Mount Meru and flowering jacaranda trees. From Washington state, Seattle University Law School students supplied them with legal research.

Initially, the lawyers, judges and investigators were hesitant to take part. Some worried about jeopardizing cases or revealing confidential information, and besides, the tribunal already had its own library, where the court records were maintained. It took the researchers more than a week to score their first interview.

Eventually, the members of the tribunal opened up, offering frank thoughts about what they did well, and what they could have done better. Judges from different countries and cultures spoke of being thrown together in panels with little instruction about how to reach decisions. Prosecutors told of the importance of trying sexual crimes quickly, before the victims move on with their lives and lose interest in testifying.

Everard O'Donnell, an English barrister who became one of the top administrators at the tribunal, told The Associated Press he was excited to think that hundreds of years from now, people might have a window on what remains the infancy of the international criminal system. As easy as it is to become discouraged - civilians continue to be killed in Darfur, Congo, Sri Lanka and elsewhere - it is essential to continue the work, he said.

"International criminal law has scarcely taken its first steps," O'Donnell said. "The point is to do this every time a government goes berserk and starts killing its own people. If you want in a thousand years fewer children to be killed, then you need to start, and eventually, one day, there will be fewer dead kids."


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