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A ‘Chilling’ Examination of Genocide

Times Staff Writer

Attorney Barbara Mulvaney has spent three years prosecuting the accused mastermind of the Rwanda genocide. But her most personal contact with him came only recently, when he casually testified about how he would go about assassinating someone in the courtroom, his cold stare swiveling in her direction.

Col. Theoneste Bagosora, a former military commander accused of overseeing the mass killings of Rwandan Tutsis in 1994, was asked to explain how he had issued orders. To answer, he gave a detailed hypothetical illustration about dispatching a killer to infiltrate the tightly guarded war crimes tribunal here.

“If you give an order to someone, for example, to come and kill someone here in this courtroom,” Bagosora began, turning his head toward the prosecution table at the far side of the room and locking eyes with Mulvaney.

“That was chilling,” the former Playa del Rey resident remembered scribbling on a note to her co-counsel as Bagosora went on to explain how his assassination order would include specifics about the courtroom layout and position of guards.

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“It freaked me out,” Mulvaney recalled with a nervous laugh.

It wasn’t the first time the former soccer mom found herself questioning how she had ended up in Arusha as lead prosecutor in the Bagosora case -- a job she describes as a complete “fluke” -- facing down a man accused of orchestrating a massacre that killed an estimated 800,000 people in three frenzied months in 1994.

To prepare for the case, she had to endure graphic evidence about Rwandan Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana being raped with a bottle after she was killed. Mulvaney spent hours viewing old news footage of the piles of bodies in the roads, most hacked with machetes in a genocidal rampage that turned neighbor against neighbor.

While deposing one teenage boy about the slaying of his parents, Mulvaney broke down and had to pass the interview to a colleague.

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“He was the same age as my child,” she said. “It gets to you after a while. Finally I decided I was driving myself crazy. I had to get cable TV so I could go home at night and just watch the Hallmark Channel.”

By the end of Bagosora’s testimony in November, Mulvaney could no longer stand to look directly at the former military commander, instead watching his testimony via a video monitor at her table. She discovered that touching the screen caused the video image to distort.

“When it got really bad, I kept poking it until his face would disappear,” she said.

Her experience at the U.N. International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda has not only consumed her professional life and tested her ability to survive as an American woman in a male-dominated, multinational workplace, it also has shaken her long-standing notions about God, justice and humanity.

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“This is a process that makes you question the underpinning of everything you thought was correct,” she said. “It’s going to take awhile to digest this.”

To keep her sanity, she plays tennis with fellow attorneys and haggles with black-market tanzanite gem dealers in the tribunal parking lot. When testimony gets too tedious or infuriating, she plugs one ear into an iPod playlist that includes Janis Joplin, James Taylor and Tina Turner.

Her road to Arusha was an unlikely one. Mulvaney grew up on the beaches of Playa del Rey until LAX swallowed her neighborhood, and the family -- much to her disappointment -- moved inland to San Bernardino.

“It was a crushing blow,” she joked.

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She followed her boyfriend and future husband to Southwestern University School of Law in Los Angeles, and after graduation bounced back and forth between California and Florida, where she worked for then-State Atty. Gen. Janet Reno.

“She was always looking for new challenges,” the former U.S. attorney general recalled in an interview.

By 2001, Mulvaney had settled into private practice in New Mexico, raising three children between stints with the Los Angeles district attorney, Miami-Dade state attorney’s office and New Mexico attorney general. She says the family’s life centered on her husband’s job, while she carted the kids to after-school events and pursued her own legal career.

“I jammed in a lot,” she said.

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A few days shy of her 50th birthday, Mulvaney’s life turned upside down. Two of her biggest cases were thrown out of court, including a sexual discrimination lawsuit she had filed on her own behalf against the New Mexico attorney general’s office. She claimed she had been fired in 1996 for exposing mismanagement. Her supervisors said she quit after being reprimanded for her management style.

The same week, Mulvaney decided her marriage was over. She returned to Southern California to mull her future.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, Mulvaney toyed with the idea of joining the FBI and CIA. Then while surfing the Internet one night, she stumbled across a job posting by the Rwanda tribunal. Though she’d always had an interest in international law, she had no experience in war crimes, having spent most of her career on zoning disputes, cocaine trafficking, prostitution and homicide.

To her shock, she got the job.

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“The whole thing was such a fluke,” she said.

With a shock of white hair bouncing against her black legal robe, Mulvaney immediately became one of the most visible prosecutors. She is one of the few women to lead a major case.

“I’m a freak to the people here because I don’t fit into any single category,” she said. “I’m this old, white, single woman. And there’s an underlying prejudice against women.”

At times, Mulvaney’s brashness has drawn scorn. Some male colleagues called her “dramatic” and “whiney.”

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Once she ruffled feathers by going over her bosses’ heads to save the job of her researcher.

Another time, she seized a piece of defense evidence that had been handed to her for quick review and then refused to return it. Defense attorney Raphael Constant asked judges to remind Mulvaney that the trial was not “a Western movie where we can just do what we want.”

Mulvaney makes no apologies.

“I don’t always do things in the most gracious manner,” she said with a shrug.

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Her days are spent in a drab conference center in Arusha, a sleepy tourist town best known as a way station for travelers going to climb nearby Mt. Kilimanjaro or making a safari to the Serengeti. Now tourist groups also file through the tribunal, watching through bulletproof glass as the international wheels of justice slowly turn.

Launched in 1995, it’s the most ambitious war crimes tribunal ever convened, including several dozen cases, nearly 1,000 employees from 80 nations and a budget of more than $1.5 billion. Among the 73 detainees are government ministers, military leaders, priests, students, businessmen and journalists.

The 1994 genocide was triggered by the April 6 death of Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana, whose plane was shot down as it approached Kigali, the Rwandan capital. In the chaos over who was responsible for the assassination, long-simmering animosities between the majority Hutus and minority Tutsis exploded.

Hutus were oppressed during Rwanda’s long colonization by the Belgians, who believed Tutsis were racially superior. After independence, Hutus took power -- and revenge -- and a Tutsi rebel army began to form.

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Each side blamed the other for the president’s death. In a spasm of violence that prosecutors allege was long planned, Hutus launched a massive attack on Tutsi civilians. Many of the killings were carried out by ordinary Hutus armed only with machetes. Teachers killed students. Priests betrayed parishioners. Neighbors turned against one another.

To date, the tribunal -- expected to continue until 2010 -- has convicted 23 people, although critics have questioned its costs and delays.

Prosecutors say Bagosora, then the Cabinet director of the Defense Ministry, was the top-ranking military leader in the country when the president’s plane went down. Prosecution witnesses, including former U.N. commander Romeo Dallaire, accused him of seizing power, dispatching a mob of soldiers to kill Uwilingiyimana, the prime minister, and 10 Belgian peacekeepers guarding her.

“No case is more important,” said Hassan Jallow, chief prosecutor of the tribunal. “It tells you exactly what happened, how events unfolded and how the killing started.”

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Bagosora, a Hutu who once allegedly stormed out of Hutu-Tutsi peace talks, saying he had to go “prepare for the apocalypse,” is accused of arming civilians and ordering military units to proceed with the massacre.

On the stand, Bagosora denied there was a conspiracy. He characterized the killings as a spontaneous eruption of ethnic hatred. He called the killings “excessive” but said “they do not amount to genocide.”

Constant, his French attorney, said the tribunal had failed to uncover written orders, meeting notes or other evidence to link his client to a vast genocide conspiracy. Nevertheless, Constant said his client was resigned to losing.

Bagosora’s refusal to accept any responsibility or express remorse left Mulvaney fuming at the prosecution table.

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“In my heart of hearts, I think he’s guilty of one of the worst crimes in history,” she said. “Ultimately he has to take responsibility, and he never has.”

After three years in Arusha, Mulvaney said, she is starting to get an itch to move on. She once submitted a letter of resignation in a moment of exasperation, but then reconsidered.

“I have days when I really want to leave,” she said. “But I would have never traded this experience. To be here has been such a privilege.”

After leaving, she’d like to compile archives of the case records to allow future generations to study and perhaps better understand the genocide.

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She’s also started thinking about attending Harvard Divinity School.

“It would be a chance to reflect and look back on all this,” she said.

“We all think about God here. Everyone who has been involved in this work at one time has had to wonder: How do humans fall to this level? And where was God?”


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