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Trial opens at The Hague for alleged financier of Rwandan genocide

Félicien Kabuga, an octogenarian, was on the run for over two decades before his 2020 arrest in a Paris suburb. 

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (CN) — The man accused of funding the 1994 Rwandan genocide protested the first day of his trial for genocide and murder by refusing to appear in court Thursday.

Félicien Kabuga wants a United Nations tribunal to allow him to change defense counsel, but the court says that a switch will only cause further delays in a trial starting 25 years after Kabuga's indictment. Having evaded capture for over two decades, the 87-year-old defendant is in frail health. To accommodate the defendant's physical condition, his trial for six counts of genocide, murder and extermination can proceed only in two-hour blocks. 

“This trial is about holding Félicien Kabuga accountable for his substantial and intentional contributions to that atrocity,” lead prosecutor Rashid S. Rashid said in his opening statement. 

In 1994, more than 800,000 people were killed in Rwanda over a span of 100 days. The victims were mostly from the ethnic Tutsi minority and moderate Hutus who opposed the violence.

Once one of the richest men in Rwanda, Kabuga allegedly used his wealth to fund various groups that called for and carried out genocide. Prosecutors say he backed the Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines, which broadcast the names and addresses of Tutsis, calling them cockroaches who needed to be eradicated. Separate from his radio station that served as the mouthpiece of genocidal propaganda, Kabuga is also indicted for funding and supplying weapons to the Interahamwe, a pro-Hutu militia that slaughtered civilians. 

“This is a significant step in efforts to ensure accountability for planning, ordering, and carrying out the genocide in Rwanda,” Lewis Mudge of Human Rights Watch said in a statement. 

Felicien Kabuga is seen in this still from video played by the prosecution at Kabuga's trial on Sept. 29, 2022. (U.N. via Courthouse News Service)

Kabuga fled Rwanda after the genocide, unsuccessfully applying for asylum in Switzerland before he disappeared. Investigators say he used a series of false passports and was aided by a group of allies to evade the authorities. In 2020, French police arrested him in a wealthy Paris suburb, where he had been living under an assumed name.

Kabuga fought his extradition but he was eventually ordered to face charges in The Hague. It was the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals that took over such prosecutions after the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda wound down in 2016.

Initially, it was expected that Kabuga’s trial would take place in Arusha, Tanzania. The mechanism shares its headquarters between the Netherlands and the East African country. But after a 2021 medical review, U.N. medical experts concluded the trip would likely be detrimental to his fragile health. 

The court appointed Emmanuel Altit, a seasoned international trial lawyer whose clients include former Ivory Coast President Laurent Gbagbo, to represent Kabuga in October 2020. Four months later, Altit asked the court to withdraw, citing “divergent views between Kabuga and the defense team as to how the case should be managed.” 

Kabuga wants Peter Robinson, who represented several defendants before the Rwandan Tribunal, to take over his defense, but the court has denied this request. Robinson is the subject of a disciplinary complaint stemming from his time at the Rwandan Tribunal over witness tampering. 

The proceedings, which are limited to six hours per week, are expected to continue through 2023. On Friday, the defense will give its opening statements. 

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