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Defense casts doubt on involvement, motivation of Rwanda genocide suspect 

The long-awaited trial of Félicien Kabuga began this week after French police finally captured the former businessman after two decades on the run.

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (CN) — Lawyers for an ex-Rwandan businessman argued Friday before a United Nations tribunal he had no motivation for getting involved in the 1994 conflict that led to genocide in the central African country, calling the prosecution’s case “far away from reality.”

Félicien Kabuga, once considered one of Rwanda’s wealthiest men, is now facing six counts of genocide and crimes against humanity for allegedly bankrolling the conflict that left 800,000 people dead in just four months. 

“Why would Félicien Kabuga, respected by all, respected by Hutu and Tutsi alike, behaved in such a way that he would put all his businesses and his family at risk?” his lawyer Emmanuel Altit posited in his opening statements. 

Violence broke out in Rwanda following the assassination of then-President Juvenal Habyarimana, with the majority Hutu ethnic group attacking the Tutsi minority and moderate Hutus. 

The octogenarian defendant refused to attend the start of trial on Thursday in protest over the court’s refusal to allow him to change defense counsel. The court says that a switch will only cause further delays in a trial starting 25 years after Kabuga's indictment. He was found living in a Paris suburb under an assumed name in 2020, after two decades on the run. 

Prosecutors argued in their opening statements Thursday that the 87-year old used his massive fortune to buy weapons for the Interahamwe, a pro-Hutu militia that slaughtered civilians, and finance the Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines, which broadcast the names and addresses of Tutsis during the violence. 

But his lawyers paint a different picture, arguing he had no editorial control at the radio station and prosecutors lacked evidence for the other charges.

"We are told a schematic narrative, far away from any reality," Alit said. He admitted that the radio station did sometimes include extremist views but argued that it mostly played music. 

Alit described Kabuga as the son of illiterate farmers who taught himself to read and began his career as a salt trader before making his fortunes in agriculture and real estate. 

Kabuga has been unsuccessfully petitioning the court for a change of defense counsel since last year. Alit, who was appointed by the court, filed a motion to be replaced citing differences in strategy, but judges denied the request on the grounds that it would create delays. 

“The victims have waited a long time,” chief prosecutor Serge Brammertz told reporters after Thursday’s hearing.

Kabuga is in poor health and although the court gives his year of birth as 1935, he claims he is actually 89. To minimize the strain, the court is holding sessions only two hours a day for three days a week. 

Citing the defendant's already frail condition, U.N. medical experts denied his transfer to Arusha, Tanzania, to stand trial last year. The International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals, which is holding the proceedings, has joint headquarters in The Hague and Arusha. It took over from the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, the U.N. tribunal established to investigate the conflict when that was wound down in 2016. 

Proceedings will continue next week with the first presentation of evidence.

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