/ 30 April 2011

US prosecutor accuses Kansas man of Rwanda killings

Jurors were offered conflicting views on Friday during opening statements in the trial of the Kansas man accused of participating in the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

Prosecutors painted Lazare Kobagaya as a leader and organiser who ordered brutal ethnic killings and instructed followers on which of his neighbors’ houses to burn, while the defence described him as a peaceful, God-fearing man who protected others from the violence that had engulfed the region.

Which portrayal prevails will be determined in the next 10 weeks during Kobagaya’s trial in a federal courtroom in Wichita. The 84-year-old Topeka man is charged with unlawfully obtaining US citizenship in 2006 and with fraud and misuse of an alien registration card in a case prosecutors have said is the first in the United States requiring proof of genocide.

“The only reason he was able to come here is because he lied about his actions in Rwanda,” prosecutor Christina Giffin said in her opening statement. “Those lies are the centre of these charges here.”

An estimated 500 000 to 800 000 people were killed in Rwanda between April and July 1994. Most of the dead belonged to an ethnic group known as the Tutsi, while most of the killings were carried out by ethnic Hutus. The events related to the charges allegedly occurred in a rural area known as Birambo, where Kobagaya and his family lived at the time of the genocide.

Defence lawyers, in their opening statement, sought to cast doubt on the credibility of admitted killers upon whom the prosecution has built its case. Attorney Melanie Morgan said her client, a Hutu born in neighbouring Burundi, married a Tutsi woman who would be his companion for 57 years and the mother of his 11 children until her death six years ago.

Morgan told jurors Kobagaya protected two Tutsi women during the genocide, and she recounted how he never forgot what had happened in his beloved Burundi even when he was more than 12 800km away from his homeland.

Kobagaya and one of his sons helped set up an orphanage in Burundi for Hutu and Tutsi children whose parents were killed during the violence that engulfed both African countries.

“While the evidence in this case will be of desperation, corruption and revenge, it is also a case of love, hope and perseverance,” Morgan said in her opening statement for the defence.

Immigration case
If convicted, Kobagaya faces up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $250 000 on each of the charges. But the indictment also seeks to revoke his US citizenship, a move that would subject him to deportation. Family members have said they fear that could lead to his death.

Mark Larkin, an agent with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement, testified that the case is being prosecuted as an immigration case because the time limit had already passed under US law for it to be a genocide case.

More than 50 witnesses from five countries are being brought in under tight security to testify in the case.

Prosecutors told jurors Kobagaya was 67 at the time of the genocide and a wealthy man by Rwandan standards. The government contends he used that influence to lead others in his small community.

According to the allegations, Kobagaya on April 15 1994, ordered a gathering of Hutus to burn the houses of local Tutsis, and the next day ordered a man to participate in the killing of Tutsis.

When the man refused, Kobagaya allegedly stabbed him in the leg. The man then followed the orders and killed another man he did not know at a place called Ruhuka, according to prosecutors.

Kobagaya is also accused of participating in attacks between April 16 and 19 1994, against Tutsis who had fled to Mount Nyakizu to escape the genocide. Hundreds were killed in those attacks.

Prosecutors also charged Kobagaya with ordering a Hutu man in May 1994 to kill a Tutsi man who had been found hiding and brought to Birambo. Kobagaya is accused of threatening to kill the Hutu’s wife if the man did not kill the Tutsi as ordered.

The defence contends Kobagaya is innocent of those allegations, noting he had difficulty even walking at the time and suffered from diabetes. – Sapa-AP