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When two American tourists were brutally murdered by Rwandan rebels during a vacation in the southwestern town of Bwindi, Uganda, in March 1999, U.S. officials vowed to find the culprits. After a four-year investigation, three Rwandan men confessed to the murder of Susan Miller and Robert Haubner. But the government’s death penalty case against the men — Francois Karake, Gregoire Nyaminani, and Leonidas Bimenyimana — is on the verge of collapse. On Aug. 18, Judge Ellen Huvelle threw out the confessions, finding that they were the product of coercion. “The Court is painfully aware that two innocent American tourists were brutally killed at Bwindi on March 1, 1999,” Huvelle wrote in her 150-page opinion. “But that sentiment may not, under the law, dictate the result here.” Huvelle’s decision followed a five-week evidentiary hearing earlier this year that included 19 witnesses. The defendants testified that during their 15-month imprisonment by Rwandan officials, they were kept in dark, dirty, and wet rooms; given jerrycans to urinate in; and fed a small cup of corn and beans once a day. No U.S. official attempted to visit them. Though Huvelle said such conditions would be “sufficient to sustain a finding of involuntariness,” she added, “Of greater significance is the detailed testimony each defendant provided” about the “use of torture to extract the information that was then communicated to the Americans.” According to the opinion, Karake described how Rwandan officials shackled his wrists to the opposite ankles and left him in that position for a day; Nyaminani testified that he was beaten with a 12-inch piece of rubber, was stripped of his clothes, and had his wrists “bound together with a nylon rope, one over his shoulder and the other behind his back” — a position he was kept in for about two weeks; and Bimenyimana explained that his arms were “bound with rope just above the elbows so that his elbows met in the back.” Prosecutors have said that the confessions are critical to their ability to try the case. Channing Phillips, principal assistant U.S. attorney in the District, says his office is debating the next move. “We would not have brought this case if we believed the defendants’ confessions were the product of torture,” he said in a statement.
Emma Schwartz can be contacted at [email protected].

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