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The Uncondemned

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In 1997, a group of lawyers and activists prosecuted rape as a crime against humanity. This is the story of their fight for the first conviction.

It was the first international tribunal since Nuremberg, and it was going badly. Lacking funds, under-staffed and living with the daily threat of bombs and kidnappings, the young men and women of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda felt that they were the "poor country cousin" to the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia at the Hague. 

But in the race to become the first successful prosecution of rape as a war crime, the ICTR team would win--not just because of the disparate crew of prosecutors, activists, academics and criminal investigators who came together, but also because of a handful of women who, despite the brutality they experienced and the danger of reprisals, got on the first flight of their lives to have their day in court.

This is a feature-length documentary that traces the legal chase to a historic verdict—which included the first-ever conviction for genocide and for rape as a form of genocide. Shot in Rwanda, Democratic Republic of Congo, The Netherlands and the U.S., the film includes interviews with the first women to testify about rape as a war crime, as well as the genocidaires-turned-militia that committed the crimes.

Why call it "The Uncondemned"? Because that was what the perpetrators were after the Bosnia and Rwanda genocides--enjoying impunity while their victims felt shattered. Four years later, that would be reversed.

In 1994, Pierre Prosper had 22 triple-murder cases on his desk at the Los Angeles District Attorney's hard-core gang unit. Sara Darehshori was about to start her first job at a law firm. Former Philadelphia public defender Patricia Sellers had just moved to Brussels to be with her new husband. Human rights activist Binaifer Nowrojee was working on her thesis. And then, two simultaneous genocides shocked the world.

Sara Darehshori in Rwanda.

Bosnia and Rwanda were resounding failures of UN doctrine. But the perpetrators had every reason to think they had gotten away with war crimes--none had been prosecuted since 1946. However, they hadn’t counted on the overwhelming power of Western guilt.

The International Criminal Court—and two tribunals—were set. Word got around—if you wanted a sure thing, ask for the Rwanda tribunal, because no one wanted to go there. It was Africa. It was “dangerous.” It had no offices, either. In fact, when Sara Dareshori landed in Kigali in September 1995 to begin her job as assistant legal prosecutor, there was no one at the airport to greet her—she didn’t even know where she was staying, let alone working. She hitched a ride with a NGO to the nearest hotel.

In Brussels, Patricia Sellers thought she’d work as a “normal trial attorney.” But the chief prosecutor, Richard Goldstone, had another idea. He handed her the dossier on sexual assault. Although rape had been declared a war crime since 1919, it had never been prosecuted. “For 50 years, no one wanted to talk about sexual violence,” Sellers said to him. “They do now,” he replied. “And you’re the new gender advisor.”Binaifer Nowrojee was one of those people who wanted to talk about it. A researcher at Human Rights Watch, she had been watching the Bosnia and Rwanda tribunals. “A lot of people are going to cut their teeth on this thing,” she told a colleague. And she became one of them. There were a lot of rumors about sexual violence, but no firm numbers. Binaifer pushed HRW to send her to Rwanda, where she would end up writing the report-heard-around-the-world.

Prosecutor Pierre Prosper at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.

Prosecutor Pierre Prosper at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.

And in Los Angeles, the dashing deputy district attorney who handled the hardcore gang unit (with a penchant for weaving rap lyrics into his closing arguments) was at a staff meeting when someone mentioned the genocide in Rwanda. “A million people killed in 100 days?” Pierre Prosper was shocked. “The UN is starting a tribunal,” the man told him. “You want to be on the list?”

These were the leads who intersected in Kigali on the way to making judicial history. They were between 27 and 34, “basically making it up as we went along,” Prosper said. They had absolutely no business being the leads on the first genocide trial in history, but there was no one else to do it. And as for tying sexual violence into the charges—no one was sure they could make it stick. The case at hand was a small- potatoes mayor who hadn’t raped anyone himself.

But then, the third-to-last witness took the stand for the prosecution...and the world of criminal justice changed forever.

We are making "The Uncondemned" with the help of: 

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