Then: Lead counsel for the Prosecution,
Office of the Prosecutor vs. Jean-Paul Akayesu
Now: Partner, Arent Fox
Q: Why did you decide to become a lawyer?
A: I wanted to be able to make a difference, to help people. My parents are doctors, and there was no way I was going to be a doctor. But my brother-in-law is a lawyer, and I began to speak to him about it, how, through law, you could deal with issues and problems and have an impact.
Q: You started your career with the Los Angeles District Attorney, as a deputy district attorney in the hardcore gang unit. How did working on gang cases help to prepare you for working on the Akayesu case?
A: The biggest similarity is the inhumanity. The fact that someone, whether it’s a gang member in Compton or someone in Rwanda or Bosnia, could take a human life, not only with reckless disregard but with malicious intent. The biggest difference is the scope and the systematic nature of it. The gang cases, you would obviously see violence, but gang violence is generally reactionary—somebody does something, and the other gang reacts, and the other gang responds. What was different with the genocide is that it was a systematic and coordinated offensive plan. So it wasn’t reactive. That’s one of the biggest differences. Also, of course the scope.
Q: Do you remember the first time you heard from Michele and Nick about the film?
A: There was an e-mail connecting us from a mutual friend, Nicole. Then I received a call from Michele. What I remember about the call is that I thought at the time that it would just be a normal call that I receive on this issue, because I get calls all the time on the case. But we ended up speaking for almost an hour, and it was clear to me that this was different. They really understood the case and the sensitivities associated with it. I think we spoke almost every day for a year and a half before we did the interview.
Q: In the film, you say that being at the tribunal was like being “dropped on Mars.”
A: When I got to Rwanda, we had a complete lack of logistical support. We were starting from a blank slate—there was no set process—and literally everything we did, every word uttered, every action we conducted, was a new action. So there was that pressure, and then we were living in Rwanda at a time when the environment was tense. There were security risks. There was a war starting in Zaire. And then, we moved to the court in Arusha, Tanzania. At the time, all the roads were dirt. There was intermittent electricity. There were still no supplies. We—the prosecutors—did not even have an office. We all piled into one room that was so small you could only fit two desks in there. We had minimal to no communication to the outside world. And we had to make something happen.
Q: What was your reaction when you heard Lisa Pruitt had no idea you had ever read her memo, let alone used it?
A: I was surprised—I had no idea that she didn’t know. At the time, as depicted in the film, when Lisa came to Rwanda, we were already at the tribunal in Arusha, so I never met her. I remember later getting her report, but we had no idea that there was this whole issue in The Hague, the conversation between Lisa, Patricia and the prosecutors. I didn’t know about that until the film.
Q: What was it like, working with Patricia Sellers when you moved to amend the indictment to include charges of sexual assault?
A: Patricia was a very bright, stoic person who was all about business. She could just sort through all the nuances and get right to the point: “Okay, this is what we need.” There were countless nights where she and I would be on the phone, she’d be in The Hague, and I’d be in Arusha [at the tribunal], and we would spend literally hours on the phone, brainstorming. It was before e-mail, so we were faxing things back and forth. She would fax me something, I would read it, I’d call her up, fax her something back, and we’d sit there and brainstorm. In Arusha, the building would be empty, I’m by myself, and I know she was up there by herself, because it was 10 or 11 o’clock at night.
Q: What do you remember about meeting Witnesses JJ, NN and OO in 1997?
A: The first meetings were were really more getting-to-know-you sessions. One of the things that we wanted to do was build the trust. So it wasn’t as though we sat down and I said, “Ok, hey, let’s talk about what happened to you.” It wasn’t lawyer-to-witness. It was human being-to-human being. Really, the start of walking down this road together.
Q: Do you have a favorite moment in the film?
A: The most satisfaction I had was in watching the survivors themselves. It was great to see them speak with strength. Obviously it was an important part of the film, but for me, you have to remember that I saw them at a very vulnerable state. It’s just remarkable how they are today compared to that vulnerable state that they were in at that time.
Q: In the film, there is a little disagreement between you and Sara about a certain silk sweater.
A: Well, let me tell you what is true. Yes, we were in a restaurant. Yes, we came out, and we had a flat tire. Yes, I had on a sweater. Yes, I said, “I’m not going to change that tire.” The only area we disagree on is whether the sweater was, in fact, silk. It was not silk. But I did have a sweater.
Q: Have you kept in touch with any of the people from the film?
A: I hadn’t seen Binaifer since probably the case. Patricia, I hadn’t seen in years. We kept in touch when I was ambassador. I would be in The Hague, working on other issues, and I would see her. I’ve kept in touch with Sara. Every once in a while, we’d just check in and see how the other’s doing.
Q: You returned to Rwanda in May 2014 to shoot some of this film. Was that the first time you had been back?
A: No, I had gone back to Rwanda probably almost every year since the verdict because after I left the tribunal, I became, under both President Clinton and President Bush, the Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes. So I would go back to Rwanda for various issues, dealing with Rwandans, the war in the Congo, whatever it was. Now that I’m a partner at a law firm, I still go back from time to time.
Q: What impact do you hope this film can have?
A: When these type of abuses and atrocities happen, someone will look at an article in the paper or the Internet, and they’ll say “Oh boy, that’s terrible.” And then they just click to the next link, move to entertainment or sports, whatever. I think what hopefully this film will do is that it will resonate in people’s minds. Where it will have that nagging feeling, kind of like what I say in the film, that ticking feeling, like “Man!” So when they’re walking down the street, they keep thinking about it, and say, “Something needs to be done.” If that happens, that can lead to some sort of action.