The weekend arrest of Felicien Kabuga, sought for decades for his alleged role in Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, surprised a neighbor in their affluent Paris suburb and gratified those working on human rights and justice.
“I would see this man going out, maybe once a day, alone or with someone,” Jean-Yves Breneol, a resident of the same block on which the 84-year-old fugitive lived in a five-story apartment building, told Reuters news service. The neighbor said he thought the frail-looking man had lived there for four or five years. “We didn’t know his name, nothing.”
Kabuga was arrested early Saturday in Asnieres-Sur-Seine, just northwest of Paris, where he had been living quietly under an assumed identity with help from at least some of his 11 adult children.
French authorities said those children provided a large network of support for Kabuga. He was indicted by a United Nations international criminal tribunal in 1997 on genocide and six other criminal charges.
“Félicien Kabuga’s arrest is a major victory for victims and survivors of the genocide in Rwanda who have waited more than two decades to see this leading figure face justice,” Mausi Segun, Africa director at Human Rights Watch, said in a news release Monday. “Those implicated in brutal atrocities should take note that the law can catch up with anyone, even those who seem untouchable.”
A wealthy businessman, Kabuga is accused of funding and fanning attacks against ethnic minority Tutsis during a 100-day spasm of violence. It was touched off by the death of former Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana, a Hutu, whose plane was shot down over Kigali airport on April 6, 1994. Ultimately, more than 800,000 people were killed.
According to Kabuga’s case file with the U.N.’s International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals, he owned Radio Television Milles Collines, a station that he used “to further ethnic hatred.” He also allegedly helped establish a defense fund to support a paramilitary Hutu group and arm it with machetes and other tools used as weapons.
Praise for collaboration
Kabuga’s arrest “is a reminder that those responsible for genocide can be brought to account, even 26 years after their crimes,” Serge Brammertz, chief prosecutor for the mechanism, said in a statement.
The U.N.-backed mechanism assumed responsibility for such cases after the Rwandan criminal tribunal closed in 2015 after scores of indictments and convictions.
Brammertz expressed appreciation for collaboration among authorities in France, Rwanda, the United States, United Kingdom, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Austria, Luxembourg and Switzerland, as well as Europol and Interpol intelligence agencies.
The U.S. State Department applauded Kabuga’s arrest, calling it “a milestone for international justice, and a message for all fugitives indicted for genocide that they will be brought to justice.” The department’s statement, issued Monday, also noted that the U.S. government offers up to $5 million bounty for information leading to the arrests of seven other Rwandans wanted for genocide.
Uncertainties over trial
Kabuga is being detained in Paris’ La Sante Prison, according to Reuters, and is expected to face an extradition hearing, perhaps early this week. Ultimately, his case is expected to come before a special body that inherited outstanding cases from the U.N. International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, which closed in 2015.
But some in Rwanda would welcome a trial in the central African country.
“Kabuga’s judgment in Rwanda would be a very good thing, a strong message for the fight against impunity,” said Bideri Diogene, principal adviser to the National Commission for the Fight against Genocide (CNLG) in Rwanda.
Diogene told VOA he hoped Kabuga would be forced to face survivors and the relatives of genocide victims. The accused could seek their forgiveness, he added.
Asked about Kabuga’s advanced age, Diogene said, “when he killed people, he was young. And even before his arrest, he never made any sign of repentance.”
A nod to French collaboration
At various times, the fugitive Kabuga had “stayed with impunity” in Germany, Belgium, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya and Switzerland, according to French justice ministry statement.
Jean Pierre Dusingizemungu, a spokesman for the London-based SURF Survivors Fund (Supporting Survivors of the Genocide Against the Tutsi in Rwanda), saw it as “a great sign for [Kabuga] to be caught in a country like France, which has been said to protect genocide suspects. … We commend the cooperation between the Rwandan government and the Residual Mechanism International Tribunals,” he said in a news briefing.
Rwanda’s government had broken off diplomatic ties with France in 2006 after a French judge issued arrest warrants for Rwandan officials over the downing of Habyarimana's plane. The two governments began restoring relations in 2009. In April 2019, on the 25th anniversary of the massacre’s start, it was announced that French President Emmanuel Macron had authorized an investigation into the French government’s role in Rwanda during the five years leading up to the genocide. Results are expected in 2021, Reuters has reported.
Paris-based journalist Catherine Field, who has been immersed in covering the story, told VOA, “The fact that Franco-Rwandan relations are back on track probably helped significantly to bring this arrest around.”
VOA’s Central Africa and English to Africa services contributed to this report.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated where Kabuga's case would be held. His trial is expected to be heard by the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals.