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Tenth Circuit to Hear Appeal in 1994 Genocide Case

By Robyn Hagan Cain on January 04, 2012 3:02 PM

Genocide trials usually involve the United Nations, not the U.S. federal court system, so it may come as a surprise that widows of the former presidents of Rwanda and Burundi are asking the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals to examine the events surrounding the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.

Fighting in Rwanda began after a surface-to-air missile shot down a plane carrying Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana and Burundi President Cyprien Ntaryamira. The current President, Paul Kagame, has been in power since emerging from the 1994 genocide as the country's leader.

In 2010, the former presidents' widows filed a wrongful death lawsuit for $350 million against Kagame in an Oklahoma federal court while Kagame was in the state to speak at Oklahoma Christian University graduation; the widows, represented by William Mitchell College of Law professor Peter Erlinder, claim that Kagame ordered their husbands' deaths. The district court dismissed the lawsuit based on head-of-state immunity, reports Reuters.

The widows are asking the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals to reinstate their claim, arguing that the courts shouldn't bow to the U.S. government's determination that Kagame cannot be sued due to head-of-state immunity, reports the Denver Post.

While the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals is unlikely to defy the executive branch in a head-of-state immunity ruling, Peter Erlinder could still bring the widows' claims under the Alien Tort Act, according to the Post.

Oral arguments in the 1994 genocide case have not been set, and are not expected until mid-2012 at the earliest.

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