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Trial of elderly Rwandan genocide suspect begins in UN court

THE HAGUE, Netherlands – A frail 87-year-old Rwandan accused of encouraging and financing the 1994 genocide in the country refused to attend the opening of his trial in a United Nations court on Thursday, nearly three decades after the 100 Day Massacre claimed 800,000 lives.

Félicien Kabuga is one of the last genocide fugitives to face justice and, even without him in court, the start of his trial marks a key day of judgment 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 massacre of Rwanda’s Tutsi minority was sparked 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 a Hutu. Kabuga’s daughter married Habyarimana’s son.

The Tutsi minority was accused of shooting down the plane. Gangs of Hutu extremists began massacring Tutsis and their alleged supporters, with the help of the army, police and militias.

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

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

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

“Even with money and protection, you cannot escape a crime of genocide,” 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 ties to the Hutu political elite, he incited genocide through broadcaster RTLM which he helped to fund and establish. In some cases, he provided locations for Tutsis so that they could be hunted down and killed, according to the indictment.

He is also accused of having paid for weapons, including machetes, used by militias to massacre Tutsis and their alleged supporters.

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

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

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

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

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

After years of eluding international efforts to find him, 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 by the mechanism Residual, a tribunal that deals with the remaining cases of the United Nations Tribunals for Rwanda and the Balkan Wars, now closed.

Kabuga’s lawyers argued unsuccessfully that he was unfit to stand trial. However, on the advice of doctors who examined Kabuga, the process will only take two hours a 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 came too late for many survivors who have died since the massacre.

“Men and women of Kabuga’s age were found bedridden and murdered. Shame (on) his supporters who cite his old age as a reason not to (appear) on trial,” she said.

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

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

Ignatius Ssuuna in Kigali, Rwanda contributed.

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