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Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

John Harvard's Journal

Scholars’ Haven

May-June 2006

Noel Twagiramungu won’t speak about the assassination attempt—the event that drove him from Rwanda remains under investigation. Two years later, he still has not returned to his native country. Instead, Twagiramungu has found a temporary home at Harvard, as a fellow with the Scholars At Risk (SAR) program, which offers one-year positions at colleges and universities to scholars whose work or identity places them in danger. Founded in 2000, SAR now has more than 100 members worldwide; thus far, some 60 scholars from 24 countries have been sheltered by more than 40 participating institutions.

Rwanda's government, Noel Twagiramungu says, meets criticism of the long-term imprisonment of probable innocents by implying that anyone who objects is "on the side of genocide suspects."
Photograph by Stu Rosner

Any University affiliate can nominate a scholar. Following nomination, a selection committee (composed of a student representative and 12 professors from diverse departments) examines the quality of the nominees’ scholarship and the current threats to their research. Because the goal is to assist scholars whose work has been inhibited, extensive publications are not expected. The committee consults relevant departments at Harvard to determine who will best benefit from and contribute to the academic resources and community available.

Between 2002 and 2005, SAR brought one or two scholars to Harvard annually, but this academic year, there are six fellows on campus, including a Palestinian physicist, a theologian from Congo, an Iraqi minister of higher education, an Iranian legal scholar, and Alp Ayan and Noel Twagiramungu, profiled here.


Turkish psychiatrist Alp Ayan works with the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey (HRFT), contributing to their manual for investigating and documenting evidence of torture, the Istanbul Protocol. As is true of many of the SAR fellows, his work blends scholarship with activism: he not only studies how to heal the psychological wounds inflicted by torture, but also seeks to prevent torture from occurring. While studying Turkish “F-type” maximum security prisons in the Izmir region, Ayan gave weekly press conferences to announce evidence of torture that he had discovered, and helped organize peaceful demonstrations.

Ayan speaks of his activism as a natural extension of his work, calmly explaining that, prior to leaving Turkey, he had accumulated civil charges for unlicensed demonstrations, illegal meetings, insulting the government, and other related offenses that could subject him to more than 400 years of prison time. (He has since been acquitted of all but two cases, which have been appealed.) Though his English occasionally falters, Ayan does not. He brims with enthusiasm for action and a gentle certainty that no one can morally ignore torture, once aware of it: “Before, when you do not see and hear, you sleep. After—then you cannot sleep.”

His personal reaction to the facts of torture drive Ayan to demonstrate for change, though he scaled back his activism after his wife’s death left him the sole caretaker of their son, who is now seven. “I tell myself, I must remain calm,” he says, “but when I do not go, then there is the violence [at the protests]. As soon as there is violence—,” Ayan brushes his hands together dismissively, “then any chance [of change] is gone.”

He credits Turkey’s attempt to join the European Union with sparking significant prison and human-rights reforms, including his own release from jail after a three-month imprisonment for participating in the funeral march of a client. Such progress is fragile, Ayan believes. Though human-rights organizations are formally apolitical, Ayan believes that their fate hinges on the attempt to join Europe: “If Turkey is refused [admission by the EU], HRFT will pay.”

During his year in Massachusetts, Ayan is working with the department of psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital. He remains optimistic about the future and plans to return to Turkey.


Noel Twagiramungu’s office at the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research is sparsely furnished with a hat rack, two chairs, and a desk. The boxes for his computer and printer sit in a corner beneath bare walls. He wears a scarf and sweater, speaking slowly and softly about his political-science research and journalism, which blur the line between scholarship and activism.

In the course of studying the Rwandan justice system’s handling of the genocide in that country, Twagiramungu directly criticized the policies of the current government. He served as general secretary for the Rwandan League for Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LIPRODHOR), which was dissolved by the government in June 2004 following allegations that the league itself supported genocide. Twagiramungu cites this as an example of the government’s use of the history of genocide as a political tool to smother dissent. Any questioning of decisions regarding post-genocide justice, he says, is portrayed as support for perpetrators of genocide (les génocidiers), because the government has claimed to be “the only ones who knew what was best for the country,” the only ones who could stop genocide.

Questioning the justice system is the focal point of his work. The process in use—Gacaca (pronounced “gatchatcha”)—employs 260,000 elected judges in a traditional form of tribunal adapted to provide “mass justice for mass violence.” Every adult member of the community participates in six stages of justice. In the first three stages, the community compiles a comprehensive list of residents prior to the genocide, a list of those killed, and a list of all those accused of genocide. In the fourth stage, the accused either defend themselves, or publicly confess. If defendants do not confess, then the fifth stage consists of cross-examination and confrontation, followed by the sixth stage, deliberation and sentencing.

The Gacaca system suffers from multiple flaws, each exacerbated by the passage of time. Confessors are generally sentenced to seven years of imprisonment and additional community-service time; because many have been detained for 10 years already, the sentence often amounts to time served. Twagiramungu worries that survivors will see the Gacaca process as merely a formal means to free génocidiers, who learn that genocide has no repercussions: “We had been told to kill, and we killed. We have been encouraged to confess, and we confessed…It is a game.” The killers, he says, “have no remorse.”

Furthermore, this limited recognition of guilt is required only of one side: the Gacaca process concerns itself only with ethnic Hutu génocidiers, ignoring crimes against Hutus. And if they happen to be part of the governing party, he says, even Hutus are protected from prosecution. At the same time, the government imprisons thousands of individuals on little or no evidence; Twagiramungu estimates that only about 10,000 suspects have been tried in the 10 years since the end of the genocide, although the government has arrested about 100,000. The government, he says, meets criticisms of the long-term imprisonment of probable innocents by implying that anyone who objects is “on the side of genocide suspects.”

His yearlong fellowship at Harvard has enabled Twagiramungu to proceed with his scholarly work unmolested. He is collaborating with Noah Weisbord, a teaching fellow at the Law School, on a book about Gacaca, and he has written another book on traditional Rwandan poetry. His wife and three children, whom he was forced to leave behind when he fled Rwanda, have been able to join him here.


When their fellowships end, the fellows must move on to new positions. “We can support scholars for a year, but after that, it’s mostly up to them,” says Jacqueline Bhabha, who directs the SAR program at Harvard and hopes future fellowships can be prolonged to three years. Although past fellows no longer have full access to Harvard’s facilities and faculties, she adds, “It’s a tremendous boost to their reputations” to have been a fellow—a permanent benefit for a fledgling scholar.

                ~John A. La Rue