How a UC Davis professor helped convict a war criminal

UC Davis law professor Lisa Pruitt appears in the documentary “The Uncondemned,” which looks at the first successful prosecution in Rwanda of rape as a war crime.
UC Davis law professor Lisa Pruitt appears in the documentary “The Uncondemned,” which looks at the first successful prosecution in Rwanda of rape as a war crime. jvillegas@sacbee.com

The call to UC Davis law professor Lisa Pruitt came out of the blue, 17 years after she had closed one of the more wrenching chapters of her career.

New York filmmaker Michele Mitchell wanted to talk, in 2013, about a memo Pruitt had written in 1996 while serving as a gender consultant to the U.N. International Tribunal for Rwanda. Two years before, more than 800,000 people had been killed – many of them ethnic Tutsis slaughtered by extremist members of the Hutu majority. Hundreds of thousands of women were raped – and often made to watch as their husbands were killed – during the 100-day-long genocide.

Pruitt’s memo had played a key role in the first successful prosecution of rape as a war crime, part of a larger case in which a Rwandan mayor named Jean-Paul Akayesu also become the first person convicted of genocide under the Genocide Convention of 1948. Mitchell and filmmaking partner Nick Louvel were making a documentary, “The Uncondemned,” about the landmark case.

Pruitt had known Akayesu had been convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity – including rape – in 1998. But she hadn’t known, until Mitchell informed her, that her memo, which had been dismissed when she worked for the United Nations, had been unearthed during the trial and had helped convict Akayesu of rape.

“I was incredulous,” said Pruitt, 51, during an interview at her airy Fair Oaks home. Pruitt, who is quick to smile and emanates a warmth enhanced by a slight accent that lingers from her Arkansas childhood, appears in “The Uncondemned,” which will be shown four times at the Napa Valley Film Festival, starting with an 8:30 p.m. screening Thursday.

Pruitt moved to London in her 20s to pursue a doctorate in feminist legal theory. Enamored with Europe, she later took a job with the United Nations in The Hague, Netherlands. Though the job was unrelated to human-rights law, “I was hanging in the same social circles as the people who worked for the international tribunals,” she said.

The Hague pipeline led Pruitt, who also had been a rape crisis counselor, to take a position as gender consultant with the International Tribunal. At the time, the tribunal was under fire from human rights groups for failing to include rape counts in its indictments of Rwandan officials. A New York Times op-ed piece co-written by human rights activist Binaifer Nowrojee (who also appears in the film) called out the Akayesu case specifically, alleging that Taba, the town under his command, “was the site of pervasive rape and sexual violence against women.”

When Pruitt began her two-month post in Rwanda, “the broad task was to see what could be done to improve the investigation of sexual assault,” she said. “But also specifically to look at the Akayesu case, and the evidence that had already been collected, to see if there was a way to amend that indictment.”

Once on the ground, Pruitt encountered resistance from fellow U.N. staff members. “Mostly I heard the ‘boys-will-be-boys’ mentality – a real resistance to seeing the widespread (sexual assaults) as part and parcel of the genocide,” Pruitt said. “It is sort of summed up by ‘We had a genocide down here; we can’t be concerned about some women who got raped.’ ”

It was an attitude too reminiscent of one that has pervaded accounts of war for time immemorial, that “women are the spoils of war,” Pruitt said. But that had started to change after World War II, Pruitt said, and its postwar tribunals – the last before the U.N. set up tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda in the 1990s.

U.N. staff members could be clumsy and ineffective in interviewing abuse survivors, Pruitt said, and sometimes dismissed accounts too quickly, deeming one woman who had lost her train of thought during an interview “unreliable.”

“I argued that we needed to understand the fact that these women had just survived a genocide,” Pruitt said with a rueful grin. “I thought they were being a bit too critical.”

But Pruitt still was able to collect sufficient material to support what she believed was a solid argument, in her memo, for amending the Akayesu indictment. But when she returned to the Hague, “it became very clear the political will was not there, either,” she said. “I could only conclude that my having been sent there was a ruse, so they could say, ‘We had a gender consultant, but we still decided not to amend the indictment.’ ”

Pruitt, a rape survivor herself (the incident happened in college), recalled crying all the way through the flight out of Rwanda to Nairobi. She was devastated to think her work in Rwanda had been for naught.

“At that point, I realized how much I personally had invested in this project,” she said. “I also realized I was experiencing a lot of secondary trauma, having immersed myself for a couple of months in the detail of the genocide.”

Pruitt turned her focus to a new job in corporate law, putting Rwanda behind her out of an instinct for “self-preservation,” she said. She later read about, and was pleased by, Akayesu’s convictions. “But I had no idea how the indictment had gotten amended.”

Not until Mitchell called in 2013, to inform her how – as Mitchell put in it a recent interview – the memo “kind of won the case” against Akayesu. “The Uncondemned” follows the case from start to finish.

Akayesu was small potatoes among Rwandan officials tried for genocide, but because of guilty pleas and red tape in other cases, Akayesu happened to become the first defendant to stand trial on international genocide charges (as defined by the Genocide Convention of 1948). The initial counts included genocide and crimes against humanity (but not specifically rape).

The case’s young prosecutor, an American named Pierre Prosper who previously had worked gang cases in Los Angeles, had not ignored reports of sexual abuse in the Akayesu case. But he found insufficient evidence to tie Akayesu to rapes in Taba – either through direct engagement or knowledge of the crimes being committed under his watch – and add that count.

But just as the trial, in Arusha, Tanzania, was wrapping up, a witness mentioned seeing women being systematically dragged away to be raped in Taba’s bureau communal, a cultural center under the mayor’s charge. This testimony led to a break in the trial, during which the allegations were investigated and Pruitt’s memo unearthed. The memo contained the names of three rape survivors whom the prosecution later would track down and put on the stand. The tribunal convicted Akayesu of genocide and crimes against humanity (including rape). He is serving a life sentence in a Mali prison.

The film, which unfolds legal-thriller style, complete with dramatic, staccato music, presents the memo as the case’s smoking gun, and Prosper says in the film that it was crucial to the case.

Pruitt, showing a skepticism befitting a law professor, said she cannot be sure exactly “what role the memo played.” After her negative experiences in Rwanda, however, she does feel somewhat vindicated. “What we know is that the women I was writing about and taking seriously were the ones who got on the plane to Arusha and testified,” she said.

Pruitt has attended screenings of “Uncondemned,” including one in June in Rwanda that allowed her to “celebrate” with the three witnesses from the Akayesu case who appear in the film. Though Pruitt had included their stories in her memo, their accounts had been collected by other investigators, and she had not previously met them in person.

“They are so beautiful and so courageous,” Pruitt said.

A celebratory mood that surrounded the film through the summer halted abruptly in September, when Mitchell’s collaborator Louvel was killed in a car crash in East Hampton, N.Y., just two weeks before the film made its world premiere at the Hamptons International Film Festival.

Mitchell said that she and Louvel, who previously collaborated on a PBS documentary, “Haiti: Where Did the Money Go?” always planned for “The Uncondemned,” their first feature-length documentary, to reach a wide audience. But now, as she’s shopping the film to distributors, “failure is not an option.”

The case itself, though a landmark, is not very well known, perhaps because it was not a watershed event for other rape-as-war-crime convictions.

Recent reports of the Islamic State using rape as a weapon of war suggest previous convictions have had a deterrent factor of zero among extremists. But “The Uncondemned” provides an alternative to despairing that such acts will go on unabated, Mitchell said, by showing “there is a judicial precedent, and that it is possible” to prosecute rape as a war crime. “You may not be able to stop it completely, but you can make it more difficult to get away with.”

There are so many variables in such cases, Pruitt said, especially with defendants without official military or governmental ties, such as Islamic State members and the machete-wielding Rwandan militia members who wrought havoc from the beds of Toyota pickups.

“To hold any of these people accountable, you’ve got to catch them, you’ve got to have government turn them over to the international criminal court, and there are issues of whether the international court is going to have jurisdiction,” Pruitt said.

But although “it almost takes a harmonic convergence” to get convictions, the cases always are worth pursuing, she said. “We proved it could be done. ... The stars aligned, and these women had their day in court on behalf of hundreds of thousands of others.”

“The Uncondemned”

What: The documentary about the first conviction of rape as a war crime plays the Napa Valley Film Festival and features UC Davis law professor Lisa Pruitt, who played an integral part in the case.

When: 8:30 p.m. Thursday; 1 p.m. Friday; 1: 30 p.m. Saturday; 1:15 p.m. Sunday

Where: Cameo Cinema, St. Helena (Thursday); Napa Valley College Performing Arts Center, Napa (Friday); Gliderport at Indian Springs, Calistoga (Saturday); Napa County Library, Napa (Sunday)

Cost: $95 for day passes; $15 for rush tickets.

Information: napavalleyfilmfest.org