Trial of elderly Rwanda genocide suspect opens at UN court

THE HAGUE (AP): A frail 87-year-old Rwandan accused of encouraging and bankrolling the country’s 1994 genocide refused to attend the opening of his trial at a United Nations tribunal Thursday, nearly three decades after the 100-day massacre left 800,000 dead.

Félicien Kabuga is one of the last fugitives charged over the genocide to face justice and, even without him in court, the start of his trial marks a key day of reckoning for Rwandans who survived the killings or whose families were murdered.

He did not appear in court amid a dispute over his legal representation but Presiding Judge Iain Bonomy said the case could open without Kabuga.

The mass killing of Rwanda’s Tutsi minority was triggered on April 6, 1994, when a plane carrying President Juvénal Habyarimana was shot down and crashed in the capital, Kigali, killing the leader who, like the majority of Rwandans, was an ethnic Hutu. Kabuga’s daughter married Habyarimana’s son.

The Tutsi minority was blamed for downing the plane. Bands of Hutu extremists began slaughtering Tutsis and their perceived supporters, with help from the army, police, and militias.

In his opening statement, prosecution lawyer Rashid Rashid described Kabuga as an enthusiastic supporter of the slaughter who armed, trained and encouraged murderous Hutu militias known as Interahamwe.

Rashid said the trial was opening nearly three decades after the genocide because of Kabuga’s determined efforts to evade capture.

In Rwanda, Naphtal Ahishakiye, the executive secretary of a genocide survivors’ group known as Ibuka, said it’s never too late for justice to be delivered.

“Even with money and protection, one cannot escape a genocide crime,” Ahishakiye said in Rwanda ahead of Thursday’s trial at the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals in The Hague.

Kabuga’s 15-page indictment alleges that, as a wealthy businessman with close links to the Hutu political elite, he incited genocide through the RTLM broadcaster he helped fund and establish. In some cases, it provided locations of Tutsis so they could be hunted down and killed, according to the indictment.

He’s also accused of having paid for weapons, including machetes, used by militias to slaughter Tutsis and their perceived supporters.

Kabuga “did not need to wield a rifle or a machete at a roadblock, rather he supplied weapons in bulk and facilitated training that prepared the Interahamwe to use them,” Rashid said.

“He did not need to pick up a microphone and call for extermination of Tutsi … rather he founded, funded and served as president of Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM), the radio station that broadcast genocidal propaganda across Rwanda.”

Rashid called the broadcaster a “mouthpiece for anti-Tutsi propaganda” and said Kabuga’s trial was about holding him accountable for his “substantial and intentional contribution to … genocide.”

“RTLM broadcasts glorified this violence, celebrating killings, praising killers and encouraging perpetrators to continue the violence at roadblocks and other locations,” Kabuga’s indictment says.

Kabuga is charged with genocide, incitement to commit genocide, conspiracy to commit genocide as well as persecution, extermination and murder. He has pleaded not guilty. If convicted he faces a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.

After years of evading international efforts to track him down, Kabuga, who had a $5 million bounty on his head, was arrested near Paris in May 2020. He was transferred to The Hague to stand trial at the residual mechanism, a court that deals with remaining cases from the now-closed U.N. tribunals for Rwanda and the Balkan wars.

Kabuga’s lawyers argued unsuccessfully that he was not fit to stand trial. However, on the advice of doctors who examined Kabuga, the process will run for just two hours per day. The first evidence in the case is expected to be heard next week.

Yolande Mukakasana, a genocide survivor and writer who lost her entire family in the genocide, said the case has come too late for many survivors who have died since the slaughter.

“Men and women of Kabuga’s age were found in bed and murdered. Shame (upon) his sympathizers who cite his old age as a reason not to (stand) trial,” she said.

Genocide survivor Justin Rugabwa told The AP that five members of his family escaped into hiding for several days during the genocide until Kabuga’s radio station revealed their whereabouts.

“When their names were read out on radio and hiding places revealed, the militias came and all died that day,” Rugabwa recalled.