- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Federal prosecutors in the District yesterday sought to drop felony murder charges against three Rwanda citizens who faced possible death sentences in connection with the 1999 kidnapping and killing of two American tourists in Uganda.

The move comes five months after U.S. District Judge Ellen Huvelle suppressed confessions by defendants Francois Karake, Leonidas Bimenyimana and Gregoire Nyaminani, who were reputed members of the Liberation Army of Rwanda.

The government’s case relied heavily on the defendants’ confessions, but Judge Huvelle barred prosecutors from using the statements. The judge ruled the confessions were inadmissible because evidence showed the defendants were tortured while imprisoned by Rwandan authorities.

“The United States is unable to proceed to trial at this time…,” assistant U.S. attorneys Jonathan M. Malis and Jeffrey Beatrice stated in a court memo filed yesterday.

U.S. officials charged the men more than three years ago in the bludgeoning deaths of U.S. citizens Robert Haubner and his wife, Susan Miller, of Portland, Ore.

The couple, on a safari vacation, was killed with six other tourists from New Zealand and Britain after men armed with automatic weapons, axes and machetes raided their tourist camp in a national park in Uganda on March 1, 1999.

In court documents, prosecutors called the killings “brutal murders” intended to send a message to the United States against supporting the Rwandan government.

Prosecutors said the men charged were among a band of about 100 that invaded the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park, a remote rain forest in the southwestern region of Uganda known for the presence of rare mountain gorillas. The group attacked the park’s guards and sentries, killing four, including one guard who was burned alive to discourage resistance.

The attackers rounded up more than 20 tourists from the campground and separated 17 who spoke English. The captives were marched by force into the forest toward the border of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Two other Americans were among those captured and later released. Three women, including Mrs. Miller, were raped before being killed.

Despite the prosecutors’ setback, they said other evidence might lead to a new trial.

“While the United States is unable to proceed to trial at this time, it may be able to do so in the future based on evidence apart from the defendants’ confessions,” they said.

A hearing date hasn’t been set on the government’s motion. If granted, it’s expected the defendants will be released from the D.C. Jail. They also could be deported.

“Once the court official dismisses the indictment… the defendants will be handled as would any other person or persons who do not have legal immigration status to remain in the U.S.,” said Channing Phillips, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

However, returning the defendants to Rwanda raises other legal questions, said David I. Bruck, a lawyer and death penalty authority at Washington and Lee University.

“If the problem with the case is that they were tortured by the people who gave them to us, how do we send them back?” he asked. “What do we do with them next?”

Mr. Bruck said the case was “extremely unusual” from the start because the federal government was prosecuting murders that occurred in another country.

“It eventually became quite obvious that when you import a defendant from another jurisdiction, you import with them all of the human rights violations and chaos from the country where they were found.”

In announcing the arrests in 2003, then-Assistant U.S. Attorney General Michael Chertoff, who is now secretary of the federal Department of Homeland Security, said the indictment should “serve as a warning.”

“Those who commit acts of terror against Americans will be hunted, captured and brought to justice,” he said.

The move to dismiss the charges in the Ugandan killings marks the second recent setback for federal prosecutors in the District in a capital punishment case.

D.C. law bars the death penalty, but capital punishment can be sought in federal cases.

In October, U.S. District Judge Richard W. Roberts said prosecutors could not seek the death penalty against reputed leaders of the so-called Congress Park Crew street gang, citing a missed filing deadline.

Meanwhile, jury selection is beginning this week in another capital murder case in federal court in the District. The defendant, Larry Gooch, is charged with killing five persons in his role as enforcer for the M Street Crew, a PCP ring that operated in Northeast.

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