Prosecutors in The Hague thought it would never happen.
The court’s most wanted man, once among Rwanda’s wealthiest and most influential people, managed to escape for 23 years, living under constantly changing false names, changing countries and homes in Africa and Europe until he was finally arrested last week. two years in a suburb. apartment not far from Paris.
Now 86 and frail, Félicien Kabuga went on trial Thursday on multiple counts of genocide. He refused to appear in court, saying in a note that this was in protest at the refusal to allow him to change lawyers, but the judges ordered the proceedings to go ahead and asked the prosecution to read his opening statement.
He is accused of being a financial and logistical sponsor of the groups that led the 1994 genocide against the minority Tutsi and moderate Hutus.
During that three-month bloodbath in the spring of 1994, at least 800,000 people, perhaps as many as a million, were killed in the small Central African nation of six million.
Kabuga played a crucial role in the genocide, his prosecutors say, as the founder and director of the popular radio station Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines. They say he had started broadcasting racial slurs and inciting fear and hatred months before the majority Hutu went on the attack.
As the murderous campaign got under way, the radio station energized its listeners across the country. It conveyed information about where citizens should set up roadblocks and where to look for “enemies,” according to Mr. Kabuga’s indictment at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.
The charges against him include paying to train and distribute machetes and other weapons to the militia groups that led much of the killing.
The trial is expected to draw wide attention with its focus on the consequences of hate speech and incitement to violence, issues that have become more prominent in numerous countries debating the role of journalists and social media in the conflict. political.
One example, rights groups say, is the crucial role social media played in what they call the genocide against the Rohingya population in Myanmar.
“This is also a rare case of a powerful economic actor, a wealthy businessman, being held accountable for the crimes he enabled,” said Stephen Rapp, a former chief prosecutor at the Rwandan tribunal, which is holding the trial in La Is.
In an earlier trial, judges convicted two radio station executives and a newspaper owner of inciting genocide and handed down lengthy sentences for inciting the 1994 massacre.
“The power of the media to create and destroy human values carries with it great responsibility,” said the summary of the ruling handed down in 2003. “Those who control the media are responsible for its consequences.”
Mr. Kabuga was not a descendant of Rwanda’s privileged upper class. He was the son of farmers and started out selling used clothes and cigarettes in his village in northern Rwanda. He gradually bought land and started a tea plantation, he proved to be an intelligent businessman who amassed a great fortune and influence in politics.
Two of his daughters married the sons of Juvénal Habyarimana, the Rwandan president whose assassination sparked the 1994 genocide.
Mr. Kabuga’s French defense lawyer, Emmanuel Altit, has tried to stop the proceedings, arguing that his client’s physical and mental frailty makes him incapable of standing trial, but the judges have decided that the sessions will be held three times. per week, although limited to two hours. each. The prosecution has cut some counts in the indictment to speed up the trial.
Interestingly, the court is paying for Mr. Kabuga’s defense. He has declared himself indigent, arguing that the court has seized all his assets.
Altit, their lawyer, declined to discuss the matter, but court documents show the court froze several Belgian and French bank accounts linked to the defendants and seized other assets.
The issue has given rise to family disputes, and over the past year, several of Mr. Kabuga’s 13 children have filed motions demanding that the court unfreeze most of the accounts and assets because they belong to them. A decision has not yet been made, court documents say.
For more than two decades, Kabuga was able to hide with the help of his large family, moving on different passports to secret homes in places like France, Germany and Kenya, according to French police and court investigators.
It is not known how or when Kabuga moved to France, but investigators said they eventually tracked him down in Asnières-sur-Seine after British, French and Belgian police traced the locations of phone calls from relatives who had visited him. .
The upcoming trial, experts say, may reveal details about Kabuga and his inner circle, but it is not expected to shed more light on the history of the Rwandan genocide and the crucial episodes that preceded and followed it.
Some historians say legal analysts have largely underestimated the atrocities of the civil war that lasted more than three years and helped set the stage for the genocide.
But most activists, including Human Rights Watch, have criticized the court for focusing only on the perpetrators of the genocide and not on both sides of the 1994 massacre. These critics say the court failed in its mandate to also prosecute excesses. of the Rwandan Patriotic Front, which still rules the country and whose members committed large-scale revenge killings during and after the genocide. According to reports, at least 30,000 people, and perhaps as many as 50,000, died as a result.
The Kabuga trial will likely be the last major one for the United Nations-backed court, which has officially closed and continues its work through a small successor court. He has tried nearly 80 cases, including those in which high-ranking government and military officials were accused.
Over the past three decades, thousands of people have been tried for genocide, most of them in Rwandan courts. Some have been convicted by national courts in North America and Europe. The court still has four high-ranking fugitives on its international most wanted list.