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Rwanda Genocide Tribunal’s Most Wanted Man Finally Faces Trial

Félicien Kabuga lived on the run for 23 years before his arrest in France in 2020. He is accused of backing the groups that oversaw the killing of hundreds of thousands of people in 1994.

Individuals killed during the 1994 Rwandan genocide, from a display at the Kigali Genocide Memorial. At least 800,000 died.Credit...Ben Curtis/Associated Press

Prosecutors in The Hague thought it would never happen.

The tribunal’s most wanted man, once among Rwanda’s wealthiest and most influential people, had managed to escape for 23 years, living under ever-changing false names, switching countries and homes in Africa and Europe until he was finally arrested two years ago in a suburban apartment not far from Paris.

Now 86 and frail, Félicien Kabuga went on trial on Thursday on multiple charges of genocide. He refused to appear in court, saying in a note that this was in protest against a refusal to let him change lawyers, but judges ordered that the proceedings should go ahead and asked the prosecution to read its opening statement.

He is accused of being a financier and logistical backer of the groups that led the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi minority and moderate Hutus.

During that three-month blood bath in the spring of 1994, at least 800,000 people, maybe as many as a million, were killed in the small central African nation of six million. Tutsi women were raped on an immense scale.

Mr. Kabuga played a crucial role in the genocide, his prosecutors say, as a founder and director of the popular radio station Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines. They say it had started to broadcast racial slurs and incite fear and hate months before the Hutu majority went on the attack.

As the murderous campaign got underway, the radio station spurred on its listeners across the country. It broadcast information about where citizens should set up roadblocks and where to search for “enemies,” according to the indictment of Mr. Kabuga at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. The charges against him include paying for training and distributing machetes and other weapons to the militia groups that drove much of the slaughter.

Félicien Kabuga at an earlier hearing in The Hague. During the murderous campaign, the radio station he founded spurred its listeners on.Credit...Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The trial is expected to attract wide attention with its focus on the consequences of hate speech and incitement to violence, issues that have assumed greater relevance in numerous countries as they debate the role that journalists and social media are playing in political conflict.

One example, rights groups say, is the crucial role social media played in what they call the genocide against the Rohingya population in Myanmar.

“This is also a rare case of a powerful economic actor, a rich businessman, being held accountable for the crimes they enabled,” said Stephen Rapp, a former chief of prosecutions at the Rwanda tribunal, which is holding the trial in The Hague.

In an earlier trial, judges had convicted two executives of the radio station and a newspaper owner for incitement to genocide and issued long sentences for spurring on the killing of 1994.

“The power of the media to create and destroy human values comes with great responsibility,” said the summary of the judgment issued in 2003. “Those who control the media are accountable for its consequences.”

Mr. Kabuga was not a scion of Rwanda’s privileged upper class. He was the son of farmers and started out peddling used clothes and cigarettes in his village in northern Rwanda. Gradually buying land and starting a tea plantation, he proved to be a clever businessman who amassed a great fortune and influence in politics.

Two of his daughters married sons of Juvénal Habyarimana, the Rwandan president whose assassination unleashed the 1994 genocide.

Mr. Kabuga’s French defense lawyer, Emmanuel Altit, has tried to stop the proceedings, arguing that his client’s physical and mental frailty make him unfit to stand trial, but judges have decided that sessions will be held three times a week though limited to two hours each. The prosecution has cut back some charges in the indictment to speed up the trial.

Curiously, the court is paying for Mr. Kabuga’s defense. He has pleaded that he is indigent, arguing that the court has seized all his assets.

Mr. Altit, his lawyer, declined to discuss the issue, but court documents show that the tribunal has frozen several bank accounts in Belgium and France linked to the accused and seized other assets.

The issue has led to family squabbles, and during the past year, several of Mr. Kabuga’s 13 children have filed motions demanding that the tribunal unfreeze most accounts and assets because they belong to them. No decision has been made yet, court documents say.

Emmanuel Altit, center, is Mr. Kabuga’s lawyer at The Hague, and has argued that he is unfit to stand trial.Credit...Koen Van Weel/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

For more than two decades, Mr. Kabuga was able to hide with the help of his large family, moving with different passports to secret homes in places including France, Germany and Kenya, according to French police and tribunal investigators.

It is not known how or when Mr. Kabuga moved to France, but investigators said they finally tracked him down in Asnières-sur-Seine after British, French and Belgian police traced the locations of phone calls by family members who had visited him.

The upcoming trial, experts say, may reveal details about Mr. Kabuga and his inner circle, but it is not expected to cast more light on the history of Rwanda’s genocide and the crucial episodes that preceded and followed it.

Some historians say that legal analysts have greatly underestimated the atrocities of the civil war that lasted more than three years and that helped set the stage for the genocide.

But the tribunal has been faulted most by activists, including Human Rights Watch, for focusing only on the perpetrators of the genocide and not on both sides of the massacre of 1994. These critics say that the tribunal failed in its mandate to also prosecute the excesses of the Rwandan Patriotic Front, which still rules the country and whose members committed large-scale revenge killings during and after the genocide. At least 30,000 people, and perhaps as many as 50,000, were reportedly killed as a result.

The Kabuga trial will likely be the last major one for the United Nations-backed tribunal, which has officially closed down and is carrying on its work through a small successor court. It has tried close to 80 cases, including those in which senior government and military figures were the defendants. Over the past three decades, thousands of others have been tried for the genocide, the majority of them in Rwandan courts. Some have been sentenced by domestic courts in North America and Europe. The tribunal still has four senior fugitives on its international most wanted list.


(c) The New York Times 2022




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