Families of two Canadian priests killed in Rwanda still wait for justice



Rev. Claude Simard likely shared his last meal with his killers. He let the men into his home and gave them plates of papaya, investigators found. Then he was beaten to death with a carpenter’s hammer and left in a pool of blood in the corner where he usually prayed.

Nobody has ever been brought to justice for the murder of the Canadian priest. But an internal United Nations report, prepared within weeks of the killing and obtained recently by The Globe and Mail, concludes that Father Simard was killed by soldiers loyal to Paul Kagame, the long-time Rwandan leader who remains in power today. A separate investigation by another UN officer found similar evidence of military involvement.

Father Simard led a humble and austere life in Rwanda, but he also had a dangerous habit: He made tape recordings documenting killings by the government that took power after the 1994 genocide. Those recordings were the likely reason for his slaying, the UN reports found.

Another Canadian priest, Rev. Guy Pinard, took a similar risk: He openly criticized Rwandan authorities for their attacks on civilians. He was gunned down in front of hundreds of parishioners by a man with ties to the Rwandan military, according to an eyewitness. Father Pinard’s colleagues and family say they believe he was killed in retaliation for his criticism.

Rwanda never charged anyone with Father Pinard’s killing in 1997, three years after the Simard slaying. But a Spanish court, in a broader indictment of Rwandan senior officers in 2008 for international crimes, named a Rwandan lieutenant-general as the person ultimately responsible.

An investigation by The Globe and Mail raises questions about Canada’s policy toward Rwanda in the 20 years since the genocide. The Globe’s investigation into the murder of the two Canadian priests found new revelations – from a former Rwandan intelligence officer, from an eyewitness to one of the killings, and from reports by the Canadian-led UN peacekeeping force at the time – that implicate the security forces of the government of President Kagame, which Canada has supported for two decades.

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A spokesman for the Foreign Affairs Department said Canada “took note” of the reports of the UN investigation into the Simard killing. But Canadian officials have never publicly acknowledged the evidence in the UN reports. Had they done so, Ottawa might have been under pressure to reconsider its support for the Rwandan government.

Despite knowing that the UN reports had pointed to Rwandan soldiers as Father Simard’s killers, Canada has given $500-million in aid to Rwanda over the past two decades, including $30-million last year. In recent years most of the aid has been channelled through civil-society groups and independent agencies for projects in areas such as agriculture and rural development.

Departmental spokesmen did not respond directly when asked by The Globe and Mail via e-mail whether Canada took any action as a result of the UN reports, or if it did anything to bring the perpetrators to justice, aside from pressing Rwanda to investigate. Asked why Canada gave foreign aid to a country accused of killing Canadian citizens, Adam Hodge, a spokesman for Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird, said only that Canada would “continue to encourage” the development of democracy and accountability in Rwanda. “Since 1994, Canada has raised the issue of Canadians killed in Rwanda on numerous occasions with the Rwandan authorities, insisting on the importance of an in-depth investigation. Canada does not have the legal means to investigate without the full support of the Rwandan authorities,” he said in an e-mail.

The Kagame government has been widely praised for its army’s historical role in routing extremists who were responsible for the Rwandan genocide, and for its economic reforms since then. But there is growing global concern about its human-rights abuses, including the disappearance, killing or jailing of suspected critics at home.

The Globe and Mail has also reported evidence that the government has plotted the assassination of exiled opponents.

Vincent Karega, the Rwandan high commissioner to South Africa, said nobody in the Rwandan government will comment on the murder of the two Canadian priests because the cases are “an old story.”

The killings could have been caused by “thugs” or stray bullets, he said. “Rwanda was quite unstable and insecure in some regions during that time,” Mr. Karega said in an e-mail in response to questions from The Globe and Mail.

“What I know is that there was no conflict or war between Rwanda and Canada and I don’t see any political interest in deliberately murdering these priests.”

The most extensive of the reports on Father Simard’s death, never before made public, was written by an investigator at the UN civilian police on Nov. 1, 1994, two weeks after Father Simard was killed. It said a Canadian officer in the UN peacekeeping force had been warned that Father Simard’s life was in imminent danger because he was gathering evidence of crimes by government soldiers.

The warning came from a former local UN official who remained in regular contact with the priest. But the warning was never passed on, even though it could have saved Father Simard’s life. The report said UN military observers may have stepped in and offered protection had they known of the grave danger Father Simard was in.

A separate report – written by Canadian investigator Tim Isberg, a UN military observer in the peacekeeping force at the time – said the killers did not take the priest’s wallet or valuables when they left his house after bludgeoning him to death. Later investigations found that the killers did take the audio cassettes on which he had recorded information about Rwandan military crimes – cassettes that he planned to hand over to UN officials, according to people interviewed by the investigators.

A few days before his death, Father Simard met Rwandan interior minister Seth Sendashonga and asked him to tell the Rwandan military to stop its reprisal attacks on his parishioners. In 1996, in an interview with Quebec documentary filmmaker Yvan Patry, the former interior minister said he believed the priest was killed by the Rwandan military with the approval of higher-level Rwandan officials.

By then, Mr. Sendashonga had broken with the Kagame government and was living in exile in Kenya. He was assassinated in Nairobi two years later, in 1998, by unidentified gunmen. His family and supporters said the Rwandan government was responsible for his murder, although nobody was convicted.

Relatives and friends of the two Canadian priests say they are disappointed that Canada never properly investigated the murders of the priests.

Father Simard’s sister, Gervaise Simard-Granger, who died this past August, said the department had promised a Canadian investigation in 1994. She wrote in June, 1995, to André Ouellet, the foreign-affairs minister at the time, to ask why the promised investigation had failed to materialize.

“When his death was first announced, officials from your ministry called me to say that Canada would undertake an investigation, that it would be done by November, 1994, and since that time we’ve received no news,” she wrote.

“One can understand those Rwandans who know the murderers yet prefer to stay quiet in the face of this cruel act, out of fear for their lives. However, we question Canada’s silence in this matter.”

In Rwanda for 29 years

Father Simard, a Catholic priest from Quebec, had lived in Rwanda for 29 years, building schools and churches for the country’s poor. Refusing to flee Rwanda during its 100 days of genocide, he helped to find shelter for Tutsis who might have otherwise been slaughtered. He also used a cassette recorder to make audio tapes of the machine guns and explosions in a nearby valley where Tutsis were being massacred.

After the genocide, with Mr. Kagame’s Tutsi-based army now in control of the country, the Canadian priest was disturbed to see a new cycle of revenge killings against Hutus in the region around Ruyenzi, the village where he lived. He began to record his observations of the atrocities, the same technique he had used during the genocide.

On the morning of Oct. 18, 1994, his cook and gardener found Father Simard’s dead body. His hands were tied behind him and he’d been gagged with a towel. Next to his body was the murder weapon – a carpenter’s hammer. On the dining-room table were three plates with the remains of the papaya meal that he is believed to have shared with the killers that night.

Major Isberg was the first investigator to arrive at the murder scene, accompanied by two other UN officials. To his surprise, Rwandan soldiers blocked his way, refusing to allow him to enter the building until senior Rwandan military chiefs had arrived.

“It did make me kind of curious,” said Major Isberg, who wrote two reports within days of the murder and a follow-up report in March, 1995. “Why was this such a big deal? Every other incident I’d gone to, I’d never really had an issue. This one was somehow different.”

When he finally got access to the murder scene, Major Isberg found that Father Simard’s valuables were still in the room, and his house key was still in his pocket, suggesting, because there was no sign of forced entry, that he had allowed the killers to enter. “Something was not right,” he said in an interview with The Globe. “There was no robbery. My feeling was that he knew he was going to die from the moment they showed up.”

His investigation found a range of evidence pointing to the likely involvement of Mr. Kagame’s army, the Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA). People interviewed for the investigation said they had seen three men arriving at Father Simard’s house that evening in a dark blue car in which RPA soldiers had been seen previously. After the murder, the same car was seen leaving the house, around 8:30 p.m.

The separate UN civilian police report on Nov. 1, 1994, described how the RPA had put Father Simard under surveillance and interrogated him five times in the months before his murder. The report concluded that the army had probably learned of Father Simard’s plans to give his audio recordings to a UN official, to document the army’s crimes in the region.

“From all indications, Father Claude Simard was murdered by RPA,” the report said. “The image of the RPA was at stake and they could not simply sit by. Father Claude Simard was about to expose them with a recorded cassette of their crimes.”

Witnesses were afraid to give information about the murder because they risked being killed by the RPA, the report said.

A week before his death, Father Simard told a former UN official that he was “very afraid for his life because the RPA was out to eliminate him,” the report said. The priest told him that RPA soldiers “were killing innocent people” in his parish, it said.

The former UN official immediately gave this information to a Canadian military officer, at the local headquarters of the UN peacekeeping force in a nearby Rwandan city, but the Canadian officer apparently stayed silent. “There is no evidence whatsoever that he passed on this information to someone,” the report said.

If this officer had acted on the information, Father Simard’s death might have been prevented, the report found.

Major Isberg’s follow-up report in March, 1995, concluded that the murder may have been “organized from a relatively senior level” and that the facts were “deliberately hidden.”

Many RPA officers had visited the village after the murder, warning villagers not to discuss the case with UN officials or journalists, Major Isberg wrote.

“Before his death, Simard appeared to be upset and scared,” said his report, based on interviews with confidential sources. “It is known that he had written to a Canadian colleague about the problems … and that he had documented some of the information. This letter and cassettes were taken the night of his death.”

While the Canadian government said it did not have the right to investigate inside Rwanda without the Rwandan government’s support, Major Isberg said he was never approached by investigators from the Canadian government for details of Father Simard’s murder.

“It’s more than disappointing,” he said. “It’s another part of the Father Simard tragedy, because it’s a tragic situation if Canadian officials don’t take interest. Canadian officials certainly had a responsibility from a Foreign Affairs perspective to investigate a murder of a Canadian citizen on foreign territory.”

A former member of Mr. Kagame’s military intelligence agency, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the potential threat to him if he is identified, told The Globe and Mail that the killing of Father Simard was a planned operation by the RPA’s intelligence department to recover the priest’s cassette recordings.

“They were scared of one thing: the information they suspected he had,” said the former official, who broke with Mr. Kagame. “Simard was a witness willing to reveal what he saw. He was a key figure, among others.”

Father Simard was far from the only foreigner to be targeted in Rwanda. Several other priests, aid volunteers and a school director – including Father Pinard, eight Spaniards, a Belgian and a Croatian – were killed by suspected RPA assailants between 1994 and 2000. “Foreigners who witnessed killings and were suspected of informing international opinion were targeted,” University of Antwerp professor Filip Reyntjens writes in his recent book, Political Governance in Post-Genocide Rwanda.

Father Pinard, a 61-year-old Catholic priest from Quebec who had worked in Rwanda for 35 years, was shot dead in his church on Feb. 2, 1997. He was giving communion to his parishioners on a Sunday morning when a man in a trench coat joined the line. He received communion from Father Pinard, then pulled a pistol from his pocket and shot the priest in the back.

“He fell to the floor and died immediately,” said a Rwandan who witnessed the killing and spoke to The Globe on condition of anonymity.

“His blood flowed. It was horrible. Then panic ensued. The crowd began to scatter. People were falling over each other.”

The witness said the gunman was a well-known local man who had close ties to Mr. Kagame’s ruling political party, the Rwandan Patriotic Front, and was the brother of an army lieutenant. Even though the killing was witnessed by hundreds of parishioners, the killer was not charged and was allowed to continue working as a local teacher, the witness said.

Letter identifies killer

The witness said he was interrogated and beaten by Rwandan soldiers after the murder because he was known to be close to Father Pinard and had witnessed the crime. He fled to Kenya and handed a detailed five-page account of the killing to the Canadian high commission in Nairobi, a copy of which has been obtained by The Globe. The letter includes the name of the man that the witness identified as carrying out the killing.

Colleagues of Father Pinard say the witness is credible and honest, and they agreed with his explanation that Father Pinard was killed because he was openly criticizing the Rwandan army and security forces for their attacks on Rwandan civilians.

“He was a serious, frank man,” the witness said in an interview. “He defended the weak. He condemned the disappearances, assassinations and arbitrary arrests that were occurring. He would denounce crimes openly during his sermons. He spoke of everything, even in front of RPF members sitting in the church.”

He said the Canadian high commission did not respond to his detailed report. “No one called me for an interview or even responded.”

In 2008, a Spanish court invoked the doctrine of universal jurisdiction – which holds that crimes of genocide and torture are so serious that those accused of committing them can be tried anywhere. It indicted 40 senior RPA officers for crimes committed between 1994 and 2000, and named Emmanuel Karenzi Karake, head of military intelligence during that period, as the person ultimately responsible for the death of Father Pinard and other civilians.

By 2008, Lieutenant-General Karake had been deployed to a United Nations and African Union peacekeeping mission in Darfur, where he was serving as deputy commander. The Canadian government publicly questioned his UN appointment and asked whether it was “convenient” to have him serving on a peacekeeping force when he faced the Spanish indictment.

Lt.-Gen. Karake currently heads Rwanda’s National Intelligence and Security Services. So far, no senior Rwandan official has been arrested or extradited to face charges by the Spanish court.

Canada, too, has the authority to use universal jurisdiction, under its Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes Act. Two Rwandan nationals living in Canada – Hutus accused of committing crimes against Tutsis during the genocide – have already been tried.

Lloyd Axworthy, the Canadian foreign-affairs minister at the time of the Pinard murder, announced afterward that the Rwandan authorities had promised a “full investigation.” He said Canada expected “an investigation that will lead to the prosecution of the guilty party.”

Roger Tessier, a priest in the missionary society known as the White Fathers, to which Father Pinard belonged, said the RCMP came to see him in Nairobi after the murder, but he didn’t have the impression that they were very interested in the case. Richard Dandenault, another priest and friend now living in Sherbrooke, Que., said there was no real follow-up by the Canadian authorities.

Louise Roy, sister-in-law of Father Pinard, said the priest knew that his life was in danger, but he refused to leave Rwanda. “He was very outspoken and the Rwandan government was afraid of him talking,” she said in an interview.

“I don’t recall the Canadian government ever calling us back to say that any investigation had been done, or that it had found out anything,” she said. “The Canadian government never did much about this. I don’t think it was that important to them.”

Geoffrey York is The Globe and Mail’s Africa correspondent and Judi Rever is a freelance writer based in Montreal.