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About Utah: Making history by prosecuting wartime rape

SALT LAKE CITY — As it is with most of the things we sign on for in life, Pierre-Richard Prosper had no idea what he was getting himself into.

He was 31 years old in December 1994, working as a prosecutor in the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles, in the narcotics section, when a government lawyer from Washington came to the office’s monthly staff meeting as a guest speaker. His talk was about his recent trip to the African nation of Rwanda, where he’d investigated a civil war that saw the Hutu tribe kill 1 million members of the Tutsi tribe in 100 days.

Two lights went on in Pierre’s brain.

First, that actually happened! Are you kidding me! (“The O.J. trial was going on; that’s all we heard about,” he remembers.)

Second, that’s a job lawyers do?

After the staff meeting, Prosper talked with the Washington lawyer. Young, single, looking for adventure, Prosper wondered if there might be a place for him in the investigation. Two months later, his phone rang. It was the U.S. State Department, asking if he could go to Rwanda. Apparently, the line of applicants was not stretching out the door.

For the next three and a half years, Prosper, whose self-made parents emigrated from Haiti and became physicians in America, emerged as the lead prosecutor of an international criminal tribunal convened by the United Nations to bring Rwanda’s war criminals to justice. Operating on an almost nonexistent budget with a bare-bones staff — his second chair, Sara Darehshori, was even younger than he was and barely out of law school — Prosper directed an effort that made history.

Not only did the tribunal succeed in gaining the first convictions for genocide since the end of World War II, but for the first time in history, rape and sexual assault were identified and prosecuted as war crimes as well.

Rape was first officially listed as an international war crime in 1919 by a commission formed at the end of World War I. But no one had ever done anything about actually going after the perpetrators. Not following the first or second world wars, not following the infamous Rape of Nanking, not following any of countless conflicts on every continent. Soldiers raped with impunity.

But not on Prosper’s watch.

When the court found Jean-Paul Akayesu, the Hutu mayor of Rwanda’s Taba Commune, guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity, including the systematic rape of thousands, it was a first-of-its-kind conviction. (Besides the million Tutsi who were killed, some 500,000 Tutsi women were raped.)

Of the 80 Hutu leaders prosecuted by the tribunal, a dozen had rape included in the charges. After the trial, thousands more were convicted of rape in local Rwandan councils.

“The legacy of our case is that people started seeing sexual violence for what it is: an act of torture, not a spoil of war,” says Prosper.

In the two decades since Rwanda, Prosper has been busy. He was tapped by the Clinton administration in the 1990s to further investigate crimes against humanity. When George W. Bush was elected president, Prosper was appointed ambassador-at-large for war crimes issues, a diplomatic position he held from 2001 to 2005. He currently works at Arent Fox, the U.S.-based international law firm, where his talents in human rights are utilized.

Prosper made Salt Lake City his home in 2006 after he married Laura Snow, daughter of the late R.J. Snow, former head of the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics.

Shortly after completing his four years as ambassador, Pierre had come to Utah to give a talk at the Hinckley Institute. Laura was assigned as his “handler.” One thing led to another. This year, they celebrated their 10th wedding anniversary.

Just this week, Prosper gave another talk at the Hinckley Institute — this one about the documentary film recently completed about his historic three and a half years in Rwanda. Directors Michele Mitchell and Nick Louvel interviewed Prosper and Darehshori, extensively, in addition to shooting on location in Rwanda, where they interviewed three Rwandan women who courageously came forward to confront their rapists in court.

The film, titled “The Uncondemned,” has met with critical acclaim. The New York Daily News called it “Hard to watch, but a must see.”

“The Uncondemned” is scheduled to run for a week, Nov. 18-24, at Salt Lake City’s Broadway Theatre. The Hinckley Institute is sponsoring the premiere Nov. 18, where Prosper will be named a Hinckley Fellow.

While not enamored at being a movie star — something else he never envisioned happening in his life — Prosper is thrilled the movie has been made, because of the impact it can have.

“The bottom line lesson from the film,” he says, “is that an individual can make a difference. Whether it’s someone like me in my early 30s, or rural Rwandan farmers who decide to take a stand, it all comes down to the same thing: Individuals matter. When we look at the world and think the problems are too great and we do nothing, then nothing will be done.”

Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Mondays.