Local lawyer prosecutes Rwandan genocide

Last month, an international tribunal convicted the mastermind of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Nearly a million people in that Africa nation died in just a few months of "ethnic cleansing." One of the prosecutors on that case is an attorney from Southern California who's back home for a short stay. KPCC's Special Correspondent Kitty Felde spoke to him about his work.

Kitty Felde: Greg Townsend spent his early years as a public defender in L.A. County. His clients were drug dealers and hookers. At least, that's what the police and prosecution said.

Greg Townsend: I was representing essentially L.A.'s finest falsely accused citizens, we'd like to say. Mostly with misdemeanors at the level I was doing.

Felde: A decade ago, Townsend left L.A. for Tanzania. He'd taken a job to prosecute accused war criminals at the U.N.'s tribunal for Rwanda. Military commanders from the Hutu tribe – as well as some political leaders – were accused of plotting to wipe out the rival Tutsi in 1994.

In just a few months, as many as 800,000 people were killed. Some of the crimes were truly horrific – but Townsend still holds to one of the key principles of justice.

Townsend: Even the worst, worst crimes really warrant a fair trial. To not have a fair trial process runs the risk of putting innocents in, and that's the worst scenario for everyone.

Felde: Last month, the court sentenced 67-year-old Theoneste Bagosora to life in prison for instigating the genocide. The former colonel is the highest-ranking commander convicted by the Rwandan tribunal.

Townsend says even though the U.N. foots the bill for tribunal defense attorneys, their quality is uneven. He says some defendants don't choose lawyers for their courtroom skills.

Townsend: The detainees are actually more interested in finding someone who is willing to enter in an illicit fee sharing arrangement. That is, I know I'm guilty, I think I'm going to get convicted, but I know my lawyer gets paid a hundred dollars an hour and if I can get him to kick back $20 of those hourly rate, I can now provide for my family that's in some refugee camp.

Felde: Greg Townsend is now working for another international tribunal, the Special Court for Sierra Leone. Former Liberian president Charles Taylor is accused of backing a rebel force in Sierra Leone that murdered civilians, cut off their limbs, forced women to become sex slaves and children to become soldiers.

Fearing political instability, the U.N. moved the trial from Sierra Leone to Holland. But unlike the Yugoslav and Rwandan tribunals, which the U.N. funds at more than $100 million a year, the Sierra Leone trial is paid for by voluntary contributions.

Townsend: The special court principals have to go around and in fact fundraise in order to keep the court going. And it's gone bankrupt previously – and in July of 2008, we had $6,000 in the bank after paying our salaries.

Felde: The U.S. kicked in $12 million to keep the court running. A verdict is expected sometime next year. Despite their cost and length, Townsend says he still believes these international courts prevent violence and brutality.

Townsend: Certain offenders in Democratic Republic of Congo have given second thought to certain acts based on the fact that they knew they were subject to potential criminal jurisdiction at the International Criminal Court.
Felde: Or perhaps they were better at covering up their tracks.
Townsend: That's also something that they must be aware of.

Felde: But Greg Townsend says the victims of war profit the most from tribunals. He says prosecutors receive messages of thanks from the survivors of the Rwandan genocide.