Attorney general nominee Loretta Lynch shaped by work with Rwanda tribunal

Attorney general nominee Loretta Lynch says her work with the Rwanda tribunal was "defining" experience

As a longtime federal prosecutor in Brooklyn, N.Y., Loretta Lynch confronted murderers, the Mafia and violent drug peddlers. She is probably best known for convicting two New York police officers in the 1997 broomstick sodomizing of Haitian immigrant Abner Louima.

But President Obama's nominee to become the nation's first female African American attorney general took an unusual detour in the middle of that crime-fighting resume, an African sojourn that came after she lost her political appointment as a U.S. attorney when President Bush took office in 2001.

That formative experience serving as a volunteer legal advisor to the International Criminal Tribunal in Rwanda gave Lynch a global perspective that sets her apart from most who have held the top U.S. law enforcement job.

Working in the shadow of Mt. Kilimanjaro, Lynch traveled repeatedly to Africa over six years, helping to train inexperienced lawyers serving at the United Nations-established court who were given the task of prosecuting those responsible for the 1994 genocide.

With a security guard in tow, she drove through lush, terraced mountainsides to gently interview survivors about the horrors they endured and investigate gruesome atrocities that convulsed Rwanda and left 800,000 people dead.

Lynch's overseas contacts and experience with international law could prove helpful in a job that has been transformed since Sept. 11 into one of the key national security portfolios in Washington.

In a powerful speech four years ago, when she was sworn in for a second time as U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York, Lynch spoke movingly about how the Africa job shaped her as a person and as a prosecutor.

"My work there was defining for me in many ways," she said.

Lynch recalled the woman who survived an attack on her church by hiding all night under a pile of bodies, only to have her priest betray her the next day, and another witness who bent over during an interview to show Lynch the scar from a machete that almost cleaved her skull in two.

"When she wept, I felt the heavens were weeping with her. I know I was," Lynch said in the speech. Lynch has declined to be interviewed since her nomination, which is scheduled to go before the Senate Judiciary Committee next week.

Her confirmation to replace Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. seems assured given that, whereas he is perceived by some as unfriendly to law enforcement and too close to Obama, she is thought to be neither.

Her nomination is expected to receive support from Democrats and Republicans.

The path to Rwanda, however, was rooted in partisan politics.

The granddaughter of a sharecropper, Lynch was named by President Clinton as U.S. attorney in 1999. It was a rare instance of a career prosecutor being elevated, rather than the usual politically connected outsider.

Much to her dismay, Bush replaced her with a Republican when he took office in 2001. But that dismissal led to her transformative experience in Rwanda.

The next year, having returned to private practice, the Harvard-educated Lynch was recruited by prominent international lawyer Frederick Davis to spend 10-day stints at the headquarters of the tribunal, located in Arusha, Tanzania.

There, Lynch patiently led budding trial lawyers from Africa and Europe through a mock genocide case, with exercises in cross- and direct examination and questioning of expert witnesses, Davis recalled in a telephone interview from Paris.

For Lynch and the others, Davis said, "it was sort of a window on a world we didn't know, about the world of criminal law outside of the U.S."

Lynch spent long, tiring days at the tribunal's heavily protected facility. Nights and any days off were usually spent shopping and socializing with the array of lawyers and human rights officials from around the globe, said former tribunal prosecutor Barbara Mulvaney, who worked there at the same time.

In 2005, lead prosecutor Stephen Rapp approached Lynch with a sensitive problem. A key witness in the genocide conviction of Jean de Dieu Kamuhanda, the former Rwandan minister of culture and education, had recanted. Rapp wanted Lynch to travel to Rwanda to investigate whether the witness, identified only by the letters GAA, had been tampered with or pressured to change his story.

Lynch was named special counsel to the prosecution. Over two years, Lynch and Vincent H. Cohen Jr., now deputy to the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, flew from New York to Arusha and then to Kigali, Rwanda.

Joined there by an investigator, translator and security guard, they traveled through the mountains to interview witnesses in the town of Gikomero, Cohen said. That is where Kamuhanda was convicted of organizing a Hutu mob, arming them with machetes and grenades, and leading them to the church mentioned by Lynch in her speech.

"They were very, very emotionally taxing interviews," Cohen said in an interview. "We were speaking to people who had lost limbs during massacres, whose entire families were decimated. We were taking witness statements from female witnesses who had been raped and had full-blown AIDS. You can imagine what that was like. But Loretta was always calm under pressure."

Lynch showed a particular ability to establish a rapport with survivors, but also to be tough when dealing with hostile witnesses, Cohen said.

Based on evidence collected by Lynch and Cohen, GAA was charged with perjury and an investigator for Kamuhanda's defense, Leonidas Nshogoza, was charged with bribing him. GAA pleaded guilty and testified against Nshogoza, who was acquitted on three of four charges but convicted of interfering with a protected witness.

Allison Turner, a Canadian lawyer who represented Nshogoza, said that he, GAA and Kamuhanda were all wrongly convicted, and that her client was the victim of a "show trial" designed to discourage other witnesses from changing their stories. "It was one of the greatest travesties that happened at the tribunal," she said.

But Rapp, who is now Obama's ambassador at large for war crimes, praised Lynch's work. He said she was motivated by a belief that "those murdered in Rwanda deserve as much recognition as those murdered in Brooklyn…. It says something about her character that she will take on such a challenging assignment without compensation, knowing that she would not get a lot of recognition."

Despite the hardships and emotional toll, Lynch has said her time in Africa did not make her cynical.

"I do not despair," she said at her inaugural speech. "Because whenever we are confronted with the specter of the evil that can walk this Earth, we turn to the law to deal with its aftereffects, to deal with those who would reap the whirlwind and to bring justice to those caught up in its wake. We make that choice even when the twin pulls of revenge and retribution are strong on our side."

tim.phelps@latimes.com

Twitter: @timphelpsLAT

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