The Curious Case of Leopold Munyakazi

Something very odd is going on here.

I know our readers, so I’m sure that most of you have been avidly following the story of Leopold Munyakazi, the Goucher College professor who was suspended from his job earlier this month following accusations that he participated in the Rwandan genocide. For those who haven’t, Munyakazi has been teaching French in the US since 2004, sponsored by an organization called Scholar Rescue Fund which provides fellowships to scholars whose lives or work are threatened in their home countries.

In 2006, he gave a controversial speech to a faculty forum at the University of Delaware, in which he argued that what happened in Rwanda had not been genocide because Hutus and Tutsis were not different ethnicities, and claimed that what happened should be considered part of a civil war. (I can’t find a transcript of the speech, so it’s hard to know what he was getting at. He might have been making a legalistic claim about the technical definition of genocide, or a political one about how it has been portrayed in the media. From the few quotes available , it doesn’t sound like he was denying the severity of the violence that took place –this article quotes him as saying it was “fratricide”- so much as criticizing the discourse used to discuss it.)

It seems pretty clear that the current charges against Munyakazi are the result of the Delaware speech, which angered the Rwandan government. Soon afterwards, Rwanda issued an indictment charging that Munyakazi aided and abetted genocide. The charges were clearly politically motivated, and almost certainly spurious. Rwanda expert Alison Des Forges, of Human Rights Watch, has reviewed the indictment and publicly expressed her doubts about its merits. She points out that the professor had been held for five years without being tried or even charged, which suggests that the government lacked evidence of his participation in the genocide. After his release, he then obtained a position at a public university in Kigali, and so was hardly “hiding out in the bush” trying to evade justice. And, indeed, the U.S. government apparently had no interest in responding to Rwanda’s demand that Munyakazi be extradited to stand trial.

And that’s where things got weird. According to this open letter from Goucher President Sanford Ungar, an NBC news producer approached him last December, saying that NBC was working on a series about war criminals living in the U.S., and Professor Munyakazi was one of their subjects. Ungar wrote that he “listened in disbelief as the producer and a Rwandan prosecutor who accompanied him said they had eyewitnesses who claimed Dr. Munyakazi participated directly in the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, inciting members of the Hutu majority to attack members of the Tutsi minority.” The professor denied the allegations, but Ungar felt that they were serious enough to merit suspension until the matter was resolved, even though he questioned whether it was appropriate for a Rwandan prosecutor to travel around the country with a TV news camera crew, rather than working with the U.S. government through official channels. (He’s not the only one who thinks that. Slate’s Jack Shafer is also unimpressed.)

And THEN things got even weirder. The Goucher letter was released on a Saturday. The following Tuesday, DHS released a statement saying that it had arrested Munyakazi at his home and “begun deportation proceedings” against him. The ICE spokesman said only that Munyakazi was “in the country illegally“, and that the case would be referred to an immigration judge. He was not detained, but was released with an ankle-monitoring device to wear.

That makes absolutely no sense. Munyakazi claims that he applied for asylum in the U.S. after he arrived in 2004, and that his application is pending. His wife and their three children have also applied for asylum here in the United States. If that is the case, then there is no reason for him to have been “arrested” now. If his case is still pending, then he cannot be deported until it has been resolved. If he was succesful, then he has the right to remain in the United States. If he lost his initial case, then he can’t be put into deportation proceedings, because he is technically already in them: asylum cases in immigration court, and any subsequent appeals, are “defensive” -a response to the government’s charge that the applicant is a deportable alien. (As a side note, that makes it a big gamble to apply for asylum in the U.S. if you have a valid visa.)

Even if, somehow, none of that is true -if Munyakazi never filed for asylum, or allowed his case to drop, or has exhausted all of his appeals- an arrest would be unnecessary and unusual. Normally, DHS just sends the alien or his lawyer a notice of removability, ordering him to appear in immigration court on a particular date. If he failed to show up, then ICE might take him into custody, but at that point it seems like they’d be more likely to keep him in detention. Ditto for if they actually believed he was a dangerous war criminal. So what’s going on here?

Super, super weird, y’all.

Amanda Taub


  1. Very, very strange. What Munyakazi said isn’t that shocking or controversial, scholars such as Mahmood Mamdani have made similar arguments about the lack of a clear distinction between Hutus and Tutsis based on centuries of intermarriage. I’m also wondering why a French professor was delivering a lecture on genocide.

  2. The New York Times implies that this will be part of NBC’s new To Catch A War Criminal series.

    While I think the connection to To Catch A Predator is actually just the writer trying to be cutesy, I sincerely hope it’s a spinoff and that there are scenes where Chris Hansen lures war criminals to a house where they think they’re going to get to commit more war crimes, but are actually arrested.

  3. Sorry to disappoint you, but the US authorities can and will deport you while you have a case pending for asylum. The DHS deports many people each year (probably up to the hundreds) while their immigration or asylum claims are pending, including pending for review in federal courts. That’s how they interpret the rules. Hopefully, under the new administration and AG, this will change.

  4. Andrew and Karl: Officially best comments ever.

    Using our soon-to-be-sweeping-the-nation Lucky Charms rating system:

    Andrew gets a blue diamond for lobbing the perfect pitch. (“Chris Hansen lures war criminals to a house where they think they’re going to get to commit more war crimes, but are actually arrested.”)

    Karl gets an orange star for nailing it on the follow through. (“She told me she was an Albanian Kosovar!”)

    I am going to be laughing at that image all day.

    Seriously, guys. Way to rock it.

  5. Pumpkin, I think that we might not be talking about the same thing. Asylum is a defense to deportation, and so applicants can’t be “removed” (the newer, fancier, word for deportation) unless an immigration judge has rejected their claim.

    You are correct that, as the rules are currently interpreted, asylum applicants who are not successful at the trial level can be removed while their appeals are pending in federal court. (The Supreme Court actually just heard a case called Nken v. Mukasey a few weeks ago that considers that issue, so that policy might change once that opinion comes down).

    However, it still makes no sense for DHS to announce that it had “begun” deportation proceedings. As I said in the post, if his asylum claim had been denied, then his deportation proceedings would have begun at the time of the denial. That is because when an affirmative case is denied, it is “referred” to immigration court, where the applicant has another chance to assert the claim for asylum, this time as a defense to removal. So, if that is what happened, DHS can’t have “begun” deportation proceedings, because they’re already going on.

  6. You’re right, I was referring to the somewhat mad (and by mad, I mean pretty disgusting) situation of DHS deporting people while those people’s petitions petitions for stays are pending. Mad.

  7. My hunch is that either (1) he doesn’t actually have an asylum application pending, but will soon, or (2) ICE is being sloppy or malicious and will be put in its place by the Baltimore immigration judge. Either way, the NBC news angle makes this case one worth watching very closely.

    A minor clarification on the procedural bits. Asylum applications are either affirmative or defensive. An affirmative application is filed with USCIS (the benefits folks at DHS) by an alien who is not currently in removal proceedings. A defensive application is filed with the immigration court after the alien has been placed in proceedings, and if successful is a form of relief from removal.

    If you apply affirmatively while in the country legally, your claim is adjudicated by an asylum officer in USCIS. If the AO doesn’t grant you asylum, your claim is denied and you remain in your legal status, until it runs out.

    However, if you apply affirmatively while you’re out of status, that’s where you’re gambling with your life. In essence, you’ve just alerted DHS of your existence, lack of status, and current address. In this case, your initial claim is still heard by an AO, but if the AO doesn’t grant your application, then your case is referred to the immigration court and, presto, you’re in removal proceedings.

    (Note: The asymmetry is driven by the AO’s lack of power to enter a removal order. The AO may only deny asylum when the alien has another legal status to fall back on; otherwise the AO refers the case to the immigration court for a de novo hearing, after which the immigration judge may enter a removal order.)

    Defensive applications are rarely filed by individuals who are in legal status, and then only in the alternative, because their first argument will naturally be “but hey, I’m legal so I can’t be removed!”

  8. Good points, Swanno, though I’d add that applying for asylum when in status can also be a big risk, even though (as you point out) direct referrals to immigration court will only happen if the applicant doesn’t have other legal status.

    That’s because applying for asylum technically violates the terms of most non-immigrant visas (student visas, tourist visas, exchange visitor visas, etc), because they constitute attempts to remain in the United States permanently. Therefore, even if the applicant is in status at the affirmative stage, DHS can still pursue removal in immigration court, on the grounds that the asylum application was a violation of the terms of the visa. That would be an extremely mean-spirited move for DHS to make, (and out of character with their usual treatment of people moving from non-immigrant visas to green cards) but I’ve heard of cases where DHS has taken that position.

  9. Hey, Munyakazi is getting off easy. The corpse of Juvenal Uwilingiyamana, a Rwandan dissident living in exile in Belgium, ended up floating naked in a canal in Brussels. Seth Sendashonga, another dissident, was shot dead in Kenya, as he was preparing to give testimony against the Rwandan government at the Arusha Tribunal. And poor Paul Rusesabagina, the real-life hero of Hotel Rwanda, lives in fear of his life here in the US after being branded a “swindler” and “gangster” by Kagame.

  10. From the moment I saw the article I immediately noticed the Kagame regime tactic of associating any opposition element with the genocide or genocide ideology (whatever that is).
    I immediately wrote to Munyakazi, the president of the college, and, later on, the article’s author pointing this out. I encouraged Munyakazi and told him that there are people out there that do realize this for what it is (intimidation) and that are behind him.
    Being Rwandan and family divided about evenly between Hutu and Tutsi (50% Russian), I can honestly say I am not biased based on any social affiliation (ubwoko).
    I invite all people to investigate for themselves and let the Kagame regime know that they can deal with the opposition through legitimate means, not threats, intimidation, and/or disruption of one’s daily life.
    If you support Munyakazi, please send him a message of support, and send one to the president of Goucher College.

  11. I have more first hand knowledge that Dr. Munyakazi does have an asylum case pending but the government filed a notice that they will probably deny asylum. The problem with deporting Dr. Munyakazi is that although the USA does not deport to his home country, they can and will deport him somewhere where he can be deported home. If he goes back he will be in danger and so will his son and wife. I have read almost every article about Leopold and I met him before he his legal problems started and I do not believe he did anything wrong. But it is a crime in his country to speak out against the One truth. The One Truth is a movement by the government to have one story of the genocide. This is called genocide ideology. Goucher college was disturbed by these accusations and decided to investigate themselves. There was a woman who has testified in front of the war crimes court in Rwandan genocide cases. She sent an e-mail saying she did not believe Dr. Munyakazi was guilty but she added no one will never know the truth. She died the next day in the Buffalo plane crash. This leads me to think the world will never know what happened. But we should not treat him like a criminal if he has no been tried and convicted.

  12. I am one of Leopold Munyakazi's former students in Pennsylvania–I know the following from first hand experience: he used to duck under his desk and hide, truly frightened, when a paper airplane was thrown in the room. He did not yell at us even though he was completely aware that we were tormenting him.

    I don't think he is dangerous, and I don't believe that he took part in the genocide. I wonder what's become of him…

  13. You guys may want to conduct some interviews over in Rwanda. Apparently there is some pretty compelling evidence against Dr. Munyakazi. Despite the fact that the Rwandan gov. is fucked in dealing with political dissidents, it doesn't negate the fact that Munyakazi was a participant in 1994.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *