The last of three Rwandan guerrillas who once faced U.S. death-penalty terrorism charges for a massacre of Western tourists two decades ago was deported from the U.S. to Australia last week, victims’ family members said.
Francois Karake, 55, was released from an immigration detention center in Miami last Tuesday and arrived in Australia on Thursday. He spent more than 16-and-a-half years in U.S. custody after being accused with two other men of first-degree murder over their involvement in the slayings of two Americans and six other Western tourists, along with at least one local guard, during a 1999 rampage through a gorilla-watching preserve in Uganda.
An exclusive POLITICO report in May detailed how Australia was asked to take the trio of Rwandan guerrillas as part of a secretive “refugee swap” deal with America struck in the final months of U.S. President Barack Obama’s second term. U.S. President Donald Trump publicly and privately trashed the pact with Australia as unfair to the U.S., but was ultimately persuaded to stifle his objections and let it proceed.
The criminal case against the three former fighters for the Army for the Liberation of Rwanda fell apart in 2006 after a judge in Washington found that confessions from the men — all Hutus — were the product of torture at the hands of Rwandan officials from the rival Tutsi clan. The three defendants then languished in immigration custody for more than a decade as they fought being returned to their homeland, citing fears they’d again face the same kind of torture the judge found they were subjected to earlier.
The POLITICO account — which roiled the final days of Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s re-election campaign last November — revealed for the first time that two of the men charged in the massacre, Leonidas Bimenyimana and Gregoire Nyaminani, were quietly sent to Australia last November as asylum recipients.
The secret transfers angered survivors and family members of those who perished in the attack, which the George W. Bush administration called an act of terrorism aimed at discouraging western support for the Tutsi-led government that took over in Rwanda after Hutus killed as many as 1 million Tutsis in a staggering wave of genocidal violence.
The massacre victims’ anger resurfaced this week with word that Karake has been taken in by the Australian government.
“Still a hard pill to swallow knowing these men have a new life, better than what they had, being re-educated, and they have an option to relocate their families under their visa,” wrote Melissa Jackson, whose sister, Rhonda Avis, 27, died in the attack.
“Appalling, should have been sent back home to Africa,” Jackson added in an email to POLITICO.
Morrison’s office did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
In Australia, Morrison also came under fire over the deal because his administration has taken a hard line against admission of refugees, including families, while accepting the ex-Rwandan guerrillas despite the charges of their involvement in a massacre and their affiliation with an armed group linked to genocide.
What was not entirely clear amid a flurry of media attention to the story was why Karake did not accompany his two alleged confederates to Australia last November.
Karake said in a series of telephone interviews from jail earlier this year that he was visited around September of last year by a diplomat from the Australian embassy in Washington, who told him he was being considered for a “humanitarian” visa.
“She said the Australian government will allow me to resettle in Australia,” Karake told POLITICO. “She asked me questions for more than two hours — whether I would be happy to be an Australian. I said, ‘Yes.’”
Karake said the diplomat also said Australia’s government would support him for a year, until he could find work there.
One reason the Australians initially rebuffed Karake may have been indications that he is still prone to violence. In September 2015, he got into an altercation with a guard at an immigration detention center in rural Virginia.
“Mr. Karake became irate and attacked the guard striking him multiple times on the head with his fists. He also used a pencil to inflict wounds, as well as biting the guard,” a police report said.
Karake was charged in a Virginia court with malicious wounding. The case was delayed repeatedly before being dropped last year. Karake was moved from Virginia to Florida a short time later.
Another reason Karake’s transfer to Australia was delayed could be that he was prone to bouts of confusion. In interviews with POLITICO earlier this year, he denied taking part in the 1999 killings, but said he’d faced a series of problems in jail, including falling from a bunk and knocking some of his teeth out. Court filings by his attorneys said he faces a serious chronic health condition and attributed some of his health issues to his torture while in Rwandan custody.
A handwritten letter Karake sent POLITICO in January showed impeccable penmanship, but said his mind is “troubled.” He also addressed a reporter as “The Respect man.”
The only outward indication of Karake’s departure was a filing in a U.S. appeals court earlier this month asking the court to lift a longstanding hold on his deportation. The Richmond-based 4th Circuit immediately granted the request, issuing an order giving immigration officials a 10-day window “for purposes of executing any removal agreed to by the parties.”
A lawyer for Karake and spokespeople for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement did not respond to repeated requests for comment. An official at the Krome detention center confirmed that Karake was “removed” on November 12, but did not specify to where.
Australian officials were also tight-lipped about the transfer. A spokesperson for the country’s Department of Home Affairs initially said it “does not comment on individual cases.”
However, after an inquiry to Morrison’s office, the spokesperson added one terse line: “All applicants undergo health, character and security screening.”
Despite the limited public comments, Australian officials appear to have responded to criticism that the earlier transfer surprised survivors and family members of victims of the 1999 attack.
Two of the eight westerners who were killed were from New Zealand, a close neighbor to Australia. However, Kiwi officials said they were not apprised in advance by U.S. or Australian officials about the decision to take in the two accused, but unconvicted, perpetrators of the massacre.
Prior to Karake’s transfer this month, however, New Zealand’s government was given a heads up that the move was imminent. That word was relayed to victims’ family members there.
Zoya Sheftalovich contributed to this report.