FEBRUARY 9, 2016 // The California Aggie
UC Davis Professor of Law instigated first conviction of sexual assault as a war crime.
In 2013, UC Davis School of Law professor Lisa Pruitt received a phone call that would change her life forever. This call had to do with a memo she wrote 17 years prior, which would later assist in the first conviction of sexual assault as a war crime and serve as the basis for a major motion picture now set to debut in September 2016.
“Part of the reason why I’m out as a rape survivor in the film and in life is [because] if we can’t talk about these issues, we can’t begin to de-stigmatize the status of these survivors,” Pruitt said. “Anyone who’s paying attention to what goes on in the world [will] know that there’s a sexual assault epidemic in our country, and if we can’t come face-to-face with the fact that it ‘happens to people like me’ — whatever that means — then we’re not really even taking the first step.”
During writer and director Michele Mitchell and her late partner Nick Louvel’s search for possible documentary subjects, they came across the court case of Jean-Paul Akayesu, former mayor of the Taba commune of Rwanda. During the 1994 Rwandan genocide, Akayesu abstained from any attempt to stop the thousands of rapes and gender-specific war crimes.
“The story of the Akayesu case had never been told before,” Mitchell said. “When I wanted to tell the story of the first time rape was convicted as a crime of war, I thought we were going to Bosnia, because the case that I always heard about happened at the International Criminal Tribunal (ICT) of the former Yugoslavia.”
It was not until Mitchell began her research for the documentary, titled “The Uncondemned,” that Lisa Pruitt came into the picture. In 1996, Pruitt wrote a memo which included testimonies from key witnesses of the crime. At the time, the International Criminal Tribunal of Rwanda (ICTR) deemed these unusable, claiming that there wasn’t enough evidence in the case against Akayesu to support the prosecution.
In spring of 1997, investigators went back to talk to every witness in Pruitt’s report, which finally resulted in an amendment to the indictment which included sexual assault on the list of war crimes Akayesu had committed. This led Mitchell to contact Pruitt, surprising her with the news that the memo she wrote almost two decades ago had assisted in a major historical court case.
“[Pruitt] started laughing and that was one of the best days of my career,” Mitchell said. “When you can call somebody who did their job and got crushed […] It was just so great to be the bearer of good news for once. Lisa’s story really resonates [because] it’s such a great thing to find out that doing your job did something wonderful.”
As a gender consultant in the late 1990s, and with past experience as both a rape crisis counselor and a victim of rape herself, Pruitt knew about the dynamics of the survivor and psychological trauma.
“I [looked] at the evidence that had already been collected from people who had witnessed the events in the Taba commune,” Pruitt said. “I argued in my memo there was sufficient evidence to amend the indictment to include charges of sexual assault and that we should be sending, as a matter of priority, investigators back into the field to contact these women again.”
At the time, the common opinion was that adding “weak evidence” of sexual assault to a case backed with strong proof of war crimes would lessen the strength of the prosecution.
“There was a strong current […] that this was about investigating a genocide, and rape was not central to the genocide — it was just incidental,” Pruitt said. “To the victor goes the spoils, and women were some of the spoils of war.”
The memo eventually got into the hands of two members of the prosecution, as a matter of inside intelligence. According to Patricia Sellers, trial attorney and Legal Gender Advisor for the ICTR above Pruitt, the document it was put back into the system as an internal document for the Office of the Investigation after initially being put aside.
“Just imagine what kind of character that takes,” Sellers said. “To go there and do that type of professional work, and to come out and hear that the work will not be used, and from [Pruitt’s] impression, thinking that it would never be used.”
Sellers believes that the work Pruitt completed in that case is a task that lasts forever in the law profession.
“Lisa was really acting on behalf of myself as the legal advisor for gender to undertake some preliminary investigative work,” Sellers said. “She did the work, did it professionally enough that you can see the result down the line [and] allowed us to really consolidate some of our investigative leads and witness leads.”
Pruitt said that without her education, the drive to vindicate the witnesses of the Akayesu case would not have led to any further developments in the case.
“I did what lawyers do; I applied the law to the facts. Maybe I went a little bit beyond that in my advocacy in taking the women seriously,” Pruitt said. “I’m proudest that I took the women seriously when no one else was.”
The witnesses, depicted as HH, JJ and OO in “The Uncondemned,” made major contributions to the story. Guided by their social worker and an NGO activist, the women testified against Akayesu and took the spotlight alongside Pruitt in the documentary.
“It’s never easy for victims of crime to get up and tell their stories, [and] by the time we were in Rwanda and meeting the women, I held them in much higher regard than I might have even thought to do so before seeing the film,” Pruitt said. “They are just absolutely the ultimate heroes of this [story].”
Mitchell agrees that recognizing the witnesses’ bravery is of the utmost importance, but she also considers how vital the role Pruitt played was in the success of this never-before-told story.
“One of the things [about] Lisa’s storyline [is] that it [is] about redemption, and about that moment when you become yourself again,” Mitchell said. “[The witnesses] are not [just] ‘women who were sexually terrorized during this genocide — they’re people who changed history. There is no single hero, but [the] Lisa Pruitt [story] is the soul of the film.”