Trial of Rwanda genocide suspect Felicien Kabuga opening at UN court

A young Tutsi refugee gazes upon the Tutsi camp of Nyarushishi, on August 25, 1994, 6 miles southeast of Cyangugu, Rwanda. [AP]

A frail 87-year-old Rwandan accused of encouraging and bankrolling the country's 1994 genocide goes on trial at a United Nations tribunal Thursday, nearly three decades after the 100-day massacre left 800,000 dead.

Felicien Kabuga is one of the last fugitives charged over the genocide to face justice, and the start of his trial marks a key day of reckoning for Rwandans who survived the killings or whose families were murdered.

Naphtal Ahishakiye, the executive secretary of a genocide survivors' group known as Ibuka, said it's never too late for justice to be delivered.

"Even with money and protection, one cannot escape a genocide crime," Ahishakiye said in Rwanda ahead of Thursday's trial at the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals in The Hague.

The mass killing of Rwanda's Tutsi minority was triggered on April 6, 1994, when a plane carrying President Juvenal Habyarimana was shot down and crashed in the capital Kigali, killing the leader who, like the majority of Rwandans, was an ethnic Hutu. Kabuga's daughter married Habyarimana's son.

The Tutsi minority was blamed for downing the plane. Bands of Hutu extremists began slaughtering Tutsis and their perceived supporters, with help from the army, police, and militias.

Kabuga's 15-page indictment alleges that, as a wealthy businessman with close links to the Hutu political elite, he incited genocide through the broadcaster he helped establish and fund, Radio Television Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM). He's also accused of having paid for weapons, including machetes, used by militias to slaughter Tutsis and their perceived supporters.

The indictment says Kabuga and others at the radio station "operated RTLM in a manner that furthered hatred and violence against Tutsi and others perceived as 'accomplices' or 'allies' ... and agreed to disseminate an anti-Tutsi message with the goal to eliminate the Tutsi ethnic group in Rwanda."

In some cases, the broadcaster provided locations of Tutsis so they could be hunted down and killed, according to the indictment.

"RTLM broadcasts glorified this violence, celebrating killings, praising killers and encouraging perpetrators to continue the violence at roadblocks and other locations," the indictment says.

It also accuses him of arming and supporting Hutu extremist "Interahamwe" militias, including one unit known as "Kabuga's Interahamwe."

Kabuga is charged with genocide, incitement to commit genocide, conspiracy to commit genocide as well as persecution, extermination, and murder. He has pleaded not guilty. If convicted he faces a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.

After years of evading international efforts to track him down, Kabuga, who had a $5 million bounty on his head, was arrested near Paris in May 2020. He was transferred to The Hague to stand trial at the residual mechanism, a court that deals with remaining cases from the now-closed U.N. tribunals for Rwanda and the Balkan wars.

Kabuga's lawyers argued unsuccessfully that he was not fit to stand trial. However, on the advice of doctors who examined Kabuga, the process will run for just two hours per day.

Yolande Mukakasana, a genocide survivor and writer who lost her entire family in the genocide, said the case has come too late for many survivors who have died since the slaughter.

"Men and women of Kabuga's age were found in bed and murdered. Shame (upon) his sympathizers who cite his old age as a reason not to (stand) trial," she said.

Genocide survivor Justin Rugabwa told The AP that five members of his family escaped into hiding for several days during the genocide until Kabuga's radio station revealed their whereabouts.

"When their names were read out on radio and hiding places revealed, the militias came and all died that day," Rugabwa recalled.