Special focus « Félicien Kabuga, the last judgment »

Waiting for witnesses at Kabuga’s trial

Nearly 30 years after some 800,000 civilians were murdered in an attempt to eradicate the Tutsi ethnic minority in Rwanda, the man accused of funding weapons purchases and backing a radio station that spewed genocidal propaganda is now facing justice in The Hague. But the pace of the trial of 87-year old Félicien Kabuga, and his refusal to attend, leave the court under pressure.

Emmanuel Altit (Defence lawyer) and Rupert Elderkin (prosecutor) discuss at the opening of the trial of Félicien Kabuga.Defence lawyer Emmanuel Altit (left) and prosecutor Rupert Elderkin at the opening of the trial of Félicien Kabuga on 29 September in The Hague. © Koen van Weel / ANP / AFP
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Once Rwanda’s wealthiest man and now in the custody of a United Nations tribunal, Félicien Kabuga refused to attend the opening statements in his trial for genocide and murder on September 29-30 in protest after the court refused to allow him to change counsel.

The former businessman is accused of funding the Interahamwe, a militia that carried out attacks against civilians, as well as the Radio-Television Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM), the country’s largest private radio station at the time which broadcast incitements to violence and murder against Rwanda’s Tutsis and Hutu opponents during the 1994 civil war and massacres. He has been charged with six counts of genocide, incitement to commit genocide and crimes against humanity.

“In support of the genocide, Kabuga did not need to wield a rifle or a machete at a roadblock,” prosecutor Rashid S. Rashid said in his opening statement on September 29. Prosecutors allege that Kabuga used his massive wealth, acquired via an amalgamation of businesses from real estate development to tea and coffee plantations, to buy weapons, pay for training and bankroll the radio station in support of Hutu extremists.

“Hate-filled” broadcasts

Much of the prosecution's opening statement focused on Kabuga’s role as president of RTLM. The radio broadcasters were started in 1993, first only programming for a few hours a day. By 1994, the station was broadcasting 24 hours a day, playing popular music alongside political programs, and ascended to be the country’s main private radio station. “It proved wildly popular,” prosecutor Rupert Elderkin said in his opening remarks. According to him, its shows became progressively hate-filled, eventually broadcasting the names and addresses of Tutsis and “moderate” Hutus – i.e. Hutu politicians and human rights activists opposed to ‘Hutu Power’ extremist ideology –, directing violent mobs to their homes which often butchered entire families with machetes.

The indictment also connects Kabuga to the Interahamwe, the MRND presidential party’s youth wing that was turned into a paramilitary organization. Considered one of the main perpetrators of the 1994 genocide against Tutsis, 2 of the militia’s national leaders were convicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), the UN tribunal established to prosecute serious crimes committed in 1994 in Rwanda, while a few others became the main informants of the ICTR Office of the Prosecutor.

Prosecutors say Kabuga purchased weapons for the group, importing them into the country in violation of Rwandan law, as well as financing training for the militia. Via his support, Kabuga made “substantial and intentional contributions” to the genocide, Rashid said.

“We are told a schematic narrative”

On September 30, the defense pushed back in its opening remarks, calling the prosecutors’ claims unfounded and arguing the indictment was merely a series of unrelated allegations with no coherent narrative. "We are told a schematic narrative, far away from any reality," lawyer Emmanuel Altit told judges.

Dov Jacobs, another member of Kabuga’s legal team, called the evidence against his client “weak and defective” and criticized the prosecution for relying on just a few, self-referential sources. Jacob’s claimed that in one section of the prosecutor’s evidence, half the footnotes referenced a single source.

According to the defense, Kabuga was simply a businessman caught up in the unpredictable violence of a grassroots conflict. Altit described Kabuga’s rise to wealth and power, from the son of illiterate farmers who taught himself to read to a salt seller to a businessman with interests in real estate, agriculture and logistics, crediting Kabuga’s intelligence and savvy for his success.

Further, Altit argued, Kabuga had no editorial control over the radio station. He admitted there was some extremist rhetoric in its broadcasting but claimed the station mostly played music and included debates from journalists of all sides. (The ICTR has convicted the former director of RTLM, one broadcaster, and another member of the radio’s steering committee for genocide and incitement to genocide, establishing that RTLM had broadcast calls to violence and murder from April 6 to July 1994.)

The French lawyer pointed out that Kabuga’s wife was of mixed Hutu and Tutsi heritage. “Why would Félicien Kabuga respected by all, respected by Hutu and Tutsi alike, behave in such a way that he would put all his businesses and his family at risk?” Altit asked.

More than two decades on the run

Kabuga was the last major suspect still at large from ICTR. “It is a very important day for the victims,” chief prosecutor Serge Brammertz told journalists after the opening hearing. There are still four other outstanding warrants from the ICTR and, according to Brammertz, some 1,200 suspects are still at large and wanted in Rwanda. But none can nearly compare to the notoriety of Kabuga as one of the alleged main enablers of the genocide.

The trial is taking place before the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals, also called “the Mechanism”, which took over from the ICTR after it was wound down in 2016. The proceedings are being held in the former building of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, which also handed its remaining business off to the Mechanism after it closed in 2017.

Police found Kabuga hiding in an apartment in a Paris suburb in 2020. Investigators say he had been aided by his family and was living under an assumed name. He fled Rwanda shortly before the country’s capital Kigali was taken by a Tutsi-led rebel group, the Rwandan Patriotic Front which has been in power ever since. Kabuga was first denied asylum in Switzerland in 1995 before disappearing off authorities' radar. He was indicted by the ICTR in 1997.

Failing health

According to the indictment Kabuga is either 86 or 87, although he claims his age as 89. Doctors agree that he is in poor health. It was initially thought he would be sent to Arusha, Tanzania, where the ICTR was headquartered and the Mechanism is co-headquartered, but medical experts felt the transfer would be too difficult in his condition. They agreed, however, that he was capable of standing trial.

In deference to his health, the court has agreed to limit the proceedings to two hours per day, three days per week. With only six hours available per week, the trial is expected to progress slowly. “Time is essential here so we hope this trial can proceed as fast as possible,” Brammetz said.

Given the limitations of the trial schedule, Brammertz expects that the prosecution's presentations will last until Spring 2023 and predicted that the defense will likely carry on through the summer. 

Controversy over defense counsel

In January 2021, Altit filed a motion with the court to be replaced as defense counsel. He was appointed as Kabuga’s lawyer, but, according to the filing, there are “divergent views between Kabuga and the defense team as to how the case should be managed.”

The court denied the request, ostensibly because any change now would delay a trial 25 years in the making. But the dispute is complicated by the involvement of Kabuga’s family, who wants the court to unfreeze assets to pay for new counsel.

In protest, Kabuga refused to attend last week’s hearings, either in person or online. According to the court, this was not because of his health, but rather his own choice. "The trial must proceed,"  presiding judge Iain Bonomy said at the outset of Thursday’s opening.