Ex-Rwandan diplomat, now living quietly in Alabama, is under investigation in 1994 massacre

By Jay Reeves, AP
Friday, April 23, 2010

Ex-Rwandan diplomat now in Ala. probed in genocide

OPELIKA, Ala. — Aside from his name and accent, Jean-Damascene Bizimana blends in almost perfectly in small-town Alabama. He has a house on a corner lot, an SUV, a Polo shirt, a job and a mortgage.

Bizimana has a past, though, one that stretches all the way to equatorial Africa and the worst mass killing in a generation.

Now a U.S. citizen, Bizimana was the United Nations ambassador from his native Rwanda and spoke for its regime in the Security Council during the ethnic violence that claimed 800,000 lives in 1994. With the recent disclosure that he now lives in this city of 25,500, he is being investigated by Rwanda’s current government for possible prosecution.

Rwandan prosecutors claim Bizimana lied to the world on behalf of the killers while at the U.N., deflecting blame from his own government to prevent anyone from intervening to stop the bloodbath.

“At no point did he denounce or distance himself from the murderous regime,” Augustin Nkusi, a spokesman for the National Prosecution Office of Rwanda, said in an e-mail interview with The Associated Press. “The physical absence from the murder scenes is not an alibi enough in the context of genocide.”

If charged with genocide, Nkusi said, Bizimana would be the first person accused in the mass slayings who wasn’t in Rwanda at the time.

Bizimana, 51, denied any responsibility and said he repeatedly asked the U.N. to send more troops. He also called for a cease-fire.

“I am a man of peace,” Bizimana told the AP in an interview Thursday. “On what Rwanda is doing in an investigation, I don’t have any comment. All I know is I am innocent and had no role in what happened in 1994.”

Bizimana did not try to hide or change his identity after his tenure as U.N. ambassador ended in the summer of 1994. Records show he moved to Alabama with his wife that same year. By 2004, they had become U.S. citizens, obtained Social Security numbers and registered to vote.

Bizimana said he became a citizen “through the normal process,” but he declined to elaborate or say whether he sought political asylum in the United States. The Department of Homeland Security would not comment on how he became a citizen.

The U.S. government inquires into an applicant’s background and can deny citizenship on suspicion of criminal activity. But the evidence must show that the applicant personally committed the crimes or ordered others to do so, said Boyd F. Campbell, a Montgomery lawyer and former chairman of the American Bar Association’s immigration law committee.

Bizimana, as a diplomat who was not in Rwanda when the massacre occurred, “is probably safe,” Campbell said.

Bizimana was in the diplomatic post in New York when the airplane carrying Rwanda’s president was shot down in 1994 while trying to land in the capital of Kigali. The president, a member of the Hutu tribe, died in the crash, and hard-line Hutu forces began slaughtering Tutsis and moderate Hutus within hours.

The Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Front fought to stop the slayings, taking control of large sections of the country. The Tutsi rebels ultimately prevailed and remain in control today.

As the slaughter was occurring, Bizimana blamed the killings first on public anguish over the president’s death, then on the Tutsi-led RPF. He also called on the U.N. Security Council to persuade the Tutsis to agree to a comprehensive cease-fire.

Weeks later, Bizimana wrote to the U.N. secretary general blaming the Tutsi “war machine” for “large-scale massacres.” In the view of the current Tutsi government, he was pinning the slaughter on its victims.

In the AP interview, Bizimana said that much of the information he gave the Security Council was based on news reports and that he was not in communication with anyone in Rwanda at the time.

“At the time, I knew there was human tragedy going on. Everybody knew there were massacres. But not being in Rwanda, I could not know at that very early stage that there was a genocide going on,” he said.

A member of the U.S. delegation at the time, Michael Barnett, said Bizimana grew oddly quiet and virtually disappeared as it became clear the government he was representing was to blame for the mass killings.

“Here is the question: How much did he know? I think it’s an open question how connected he was,” said Barnett, who now teaches at the University of Minnesota.

Bizimana said that after losing his U.N. post, he picked Alabama because of the lush green landscape and the temperate climate.

His whereabouts were recently revealed by David L. Bosco, who teaches international politics at American University in Washington and wrote a book about the Security Council.

“Bizimana’s disappearance was a mystery that I wanted to follow up, and I felt that he had an obligation to at least answer questions about his role in the events leading up to the genocide,” Bosco said.

An Internet search led Bosco to Opelika, where he found Bizimana working in quality control at a company that makes plastic containers. Bosco wrote an article about Bizimana that was published earlier this month in the opinion section of The Washington Post.

“I do not assume that he is guilty of any crime or even that he was part of the extremist circle that planned the genocide, but I do think he has an obligation to answer questions about his role,” Bosco told the AP.

Nkusi, the spokesman for the Rwandan prosecutor’s office, said authorities will look at prosecuting Bizimana now that Bosco has told them where to find him.

Rwanda does not have an extradition treaty with the U.S., but Nkusi said Bizimana could be prosecuted in absentia.

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