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Investigators collect evidence for crimes around the world (Major Crimes – Part 3)

Investigators collect evidence during war crimes investigations to reinforce witness accounts. Credit: RCMP

Investigating war crimes requires close partnerships and persistence. In Part 3 of our major crimes series, Gazette magazine looks at what's involved in conducting these complex cases.

By Travis Poland

Canada is known as a safe haven for many but the RCMP works to ensure those who commit atrocities abroad don't call the nation home.

Officers with the RCMP's Sensitive and International Investigations Section probe alleged war criminals under Canada's Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes Act. The act allows people in Canada to be charged and tried for crimes committed in another country.

"These are complex cases and they can take a lot of time," says Sgt. Yves Gravelle, team leader with the section, based in Ottawa.

The international aspect adds difficulties, but police pursue the cases with the same vigour as domestic crimes.

"In a regular case, you often start with a crime and a victim, but with these cases we often have only a suspect and need to collect evidence about the event," says Gravelle.

When investigators go overseas, they work with local officials to find witnesses, conduct interviews and search for corroborative evidence reinforcing the witness reports.

"We want to add weight to the witness testimony and back up their accounts," Gravelle says.

Logistics and limitations

Language, logistics and legal limitations all challenge the investigators. They need authority from the nation they're in to work, and witnesses can speak a variety of languages meaning police need interpreters to collect information.

Despite the added challenges, the investigations are comparable to a domestic cold case.

"The investigative toolbox is the same," says Cpl. Matthew Gallant, an RCMP sensitive and international investigator.

When working abroad, cultural aspects are important to consider. Some countries allow for hearsay evidence and investigators must stress they can only use what a witness saw themselves.

RCMP experts support the war crimes investigations by analyzing physical evidence and forensics. In some cases, they've studied bullet ballistics or conducted forensic exhumations.

Sometimes investigators have to get creative if they can't visit a crime scene. In one case, police recreated a scene with miniature cars to ensure they were accurately collecting the witness account.

Key collaboration

RCMP war-crime investigators work closely with the Department of Justice, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada and the Canadian Border Services Agency to investigate suspected war criminals living in the country.

The RCMP conducts the criminal investigations while partner agencies are responsible for aspects like determining residency status or building a court case. They regularly meet to review current and potential cases.

Linda Bianchi, senior counsel with the Department of Justice war crimes and crimes against humanity section, says her team provides legal advice and travels with police on evidence-gathering operations.

"These investigations are so large, time consuming and resource intensive that we assist in building a viable legal case right from the outset," says Bianchi. "Lawyers assist with the legal theory of the case and provide guidance for the complex laws that can be at work."

The partnerships have yielded results.

In 2009, a Quebec Superior Court found Désiré Munyaneza guilty of seven counts of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. He is serving a life sentence.

As Quebec Superior Court Justice André Dennis said during sentencing, Munyaneza "chose to rape, kill and pillage to promote the supremacy of his ethnic group."

RCMP experts spent months on the ground in Rwanda interviewing witnesses and collecting evidence to secure the conviction.

The criminal investigations can be resource intensive, but they send the message that Canada isn't complacent with war criminals.

"We want to do all we can for the victims of these horrible crimes," says Gallant. "Justice shouldn't have a time limit or a border."

Canada's War Crimes Program gets tips from across the country and around the world. They've investigated cases from the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda and various civil wars.

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