Hague trial set for Rwanda genocide accused Felicien Kabuga

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Felicien Kabuga, an alleged financier of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, will go on trial in The Hague on September 29 facing charges of genocide and crimes against humanity, a UN judge announced Thursday.

Once one of Rwanda's richest men, Kabuga allegedly helped set up hate media that urged ethnic Hutus to "kill Tutsi cockroaches" and funded militia groups.

Now in his 80s, Kabuga was arrested in France in May 2020 and transferred to a UN tribunal in The Hague to face charges of playing a key role in the slaughter of 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

"The Chamber orders the trial to commence at the Hague branch with opening statements on the 29th of September... and evidence to start on the 5th of October," Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals (MICT) judge Iain Bonomy said.

Wearing a dark suit, spotted black tie and striped white shirt, a frail-looking Kabuga listened intently through headphones perched on his head.

Earlier he was pushed into the courtroom in a wheelchair.

Kabuga was originally scheduled to appear in court in Arusha, where the other arm of the MICT resides, but judges had ruled he would remain in The Hague "until otherwise decided."

In June, the judges denied a defence objection, ruling Kabuga was indeed fit to stand trial.

Bonomy said on Thursday the defendant would appear "three times a week for two hours at a time."

Kabuga is being held at the tribunal's detention unit a few kilometres (miles) away.

He will be allowed to attend hearings through a video link if necessary, the judge said.

"Routine is an important part of Mr Kabuga's life," he said. "Whatever is required will be done."

Kabuga listened motionless but told Bonomy he wanted to change lawyers when asked if he wished to address the court.

- Eagerly-awaited trial -

His current defence lawyer, Emmanuel Altit, pleaded not guilty on his client's behalf at Kabuga's first appearance in November 2020.

He faces six charges including one count of genocide and three counts of crimes against humanity: persecution, extermination and murder.

Reacting to Thursday's announcement, Egide Nkuranga of the umbrella IBUKA genocide survivors' association said the trial was eagerly awaited "despite the delay tactics being employed by Kabuga's lawyers."

"We want justice to be served, so his trial needs to be sped up," Nkuranga told AFP.

"If Kabuga dies before facing justice, he would have died under the presumption of innocence, and this would be devastating for justice."

"It would also mean that some crucial information regarding the planning and execution of the genocide would have gone with him," Nkuranga added.

The UN says 800,000 people were murdered in Rwanda in 1994 in a 100-day rampage that shocked the world.

An ally of Rwanda's then-ruling party, Kabuga allegedly helped create the Interahamwe Hutu militia group and the Radio-Television Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM), whose broadcasts incited people to murder.

The radio station also identified the hiding places of Tutsis where they were later killed, prosecutors said in the indictment.

- 'Distributed machetes' -

More than 50 witnesses are expected to appear for the prosecution, which said they needed about 40 hours to wrap their case.

Prosecutors said Kabuga controlled and encouraged RTLM's content and defended the station when the minister of information criticised the broadcasts.

Kabuga is also accused of "distributing machetes" to genocidal groups, and ordering them to kill Tutsis.

Later fleeing Rwanda, Kabuga spent years on the run using a succession of false passports.

Investigators say he was helped by a network of former Rwandan allies to evade justice.

Following his arrest in a small apartment near Paris, his lawyers argued that Kabuga, whose age is now given as 87 on the indictment, should face trial in France for health reasons.

But France's top court ruled he should be moved to UN custody, in line with an arrest warrant issued in 1997.