A French court will decide today whether Felicien Kabuga, one of Africa’s most wanted men, should be handed over to a United Nations tribunal where the former businessman is charged with bankrolling the 1994 Rwandan genocide. His lawyers want him tried in France, where Kabuga was arrested last month, 26 years after he fled Rwanda. Many survivors of the genocide would like to see him in a dock in Kigali.
At one level, the location of the trial may be moot. Kabuga, who denies the charges against him, is a frail 84 years old. Since the legal proceedings may take years, he will likely have died long before final sentencing. Families of the 800 000 victims of the genocide may feel that justice, delayed for the better part of three decades in this instance, has effectively been denied.
But the trial of Kabuga will nonetheless be of vital interest, and some of its ramifications will extend far beyond Rwanda. With any luck, it will also inspire new lines of inquiry into the circumstances that allowed him to evade capture for so long.
At the very least, it will shed light onto the planning, preparation and execution of the genocide — which could help prevent a repeat of those horrors. Rwanda still bears the scars of mass atrocity; new reminders are served up every so often, in the shape of mass graves.
Kabuga is thought to have played a key role in the run-up to the 100-day carnage. His radio station, RT Milles Collines, was the bullhorn through which messages of ethnic hatred were blasted across the country: The minority Tutsis were vilified as “cockroaches” deserving extermination. Kabuga is also believed to have provided Hutu militias with financial and logistical support, arming them, among other things, with machetes, their weapon of choice.
In 1997, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, created by the UN, indicted Kabuga on seven charges relating to the genocide. Although the ICTR prosecuted dozens of others, none were as influential as Kabuga, who has been compared with Nazi war criminals.
Kabuga’s trial also represents a rare occasion when an accused financier, an enabler, of widespread atrocities has been brought to court. At the time of the genocide, he was one of Rwanda’s richest men, with a fortune in tea and coffee. Typically, the money men behind crimes of this scale get away with it. If justice is served on Kabuga, it might give pause to others who bankroll killers.
His wealth undoubtedly helped to keep Kabuga concealed, apparently in some comfort. But he also had assistance, very likely from powerful political figures. Many of them must now feel some foreboding as the fugitive prepares for his trial.
In the quarter century he remained free, French authorities say Kabuga had 28 aliases. He is thought to have lived in Kenya, France and several other countries. He made at least one abortive attempt to enter Switzerland. The closest anyone came to claiming the US State Department’s $5 million bounty for his capture was in 2003, when a young Kenyan who tried to entrap Kabuga was himself killed.
Thereafter, the trail seems to have gone cold until last year, when several Western law-enforcement agencies combined forces to track him down. French police found him living in an apartment in the Paris suburb of Asnières-sur-Seine.
Kabuga had managed to outlast the ICTR, which was dissolved in 2015. Thereafter, outstanding cases were taken over by another UN creation, the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals, a mopping-up operation for criminal tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia.
Rwanda’s government may well allow the UN mechanism to prosecute Kabuga. But it might reasonably demand an investigation into his years on the lam, starting in France and working backward.
Six other Rwandans wanted by the tribunal remain at large. Conceivably, they are being sheltered by the same people who helped Kabuga. Even if his age saves him from appropriate punishment, it is not too late to serve justice on those who enabled the enabler.
© 2020 Bloomberg