The arrest of the most wanted genocide suspect of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, Félicien Kabuga, 84, in a Paris apartment last week, highlights renewed French commitment to improve relations with Rwanda, long injured by allegations against each other on the genocide.
Prosecutors say that the long coming but dramatic end to the fugitive’s run from justice could not have happened if France—criticised for harbouring Rwandan genocide fugitives—had not co-operated in the surveillance and arrest.
“In the past two months, we came to a conclusion that he was most likely in France and in the region of Paris. We intensified co-operation with French authorities, and only a few weeks ago we had a clear idea of where he could be physically hiding,” Serge Brammertz, the chief prosecutor of the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals (IRMCT) told French state television.
“French authorities put an operation in place. They were very instrumental in locating the specific apartment where he was. So co-operation with the police and prosecutor general office in Paris was excellent.”
France-Rwanda relations thawed when in 2018 French authorities decided to close an investigation into the 1994 shooting down of the plane carrying then Rwandan president Juvénal Habyarimana. The two countries entered a new era of judicial and political co-operation.
However, Kabuga’s arrest in Paris raises serious questions about the French government’s involvement in his successful evasion from justice for over 26 years.
In an e-mail interview with The EastAfrican, Phil Clark, a professor of International Politics and scholar of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi at the London-based School of Oriental and African Studies said;
“The discovery of Kabuga in Paris raises major questions about how long he has lived in France and about how much the French authorities knew. It is difficult to believe that such a high profile suspect, even with a new identity, could live openly without the French authorities knowing it.”
“Kabuga helped build and fund the interahamwe and the French government provided much of the training. So Kabuga's involvement in the genocide is tightly intertwined with that of France,” he said.
“In hindsight, it's not surprising that Kabuga sought sanctuary in Paris because he always had close links to the French Establishment. Those connections were key to the creation of the interahamwe in 1992 and their violent campaign against the Tutsi until the end of the genocide in 1994,” Prof Clark added.
In April last year, President Emmanuel Macron ordered a probe into his government’s role in the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi. His decision was unpopular in French political circles but applauded by Rwandan authorities, who had for long called on France to come clean over its role in the genocide.
“The likely explanation of Kabuga’s arrest is that relations between Rwanda and France have started to improve since Macron's election. The French government, for example, supported Louise Mushikawabo's bid for the head of la Francophone, something that would've been unimaginable five or six years ago. It seems the French authorities finally decided to give Kabuga up, which led to his arrest,” Prof Clark said.
In 2016, when Belgian Brammertz was appointed chief prosecutor of IRMCT, he vowed to arrest Kabuga as one of his chief missions. Efforts to arrest the fugitive were renewed in 2017, shortly after President Macron was elected. But even as President Macron extended an olive branch to Rwanda, France had, however, continued to deny a role in the genocide.
In 2017, Mr Brammertz teamed up with Rwandan prosecutors to set up a small team of 17 investigators and prosecutors to pursue Kabuga.
A member of that team who spoke to The EastAfrican said that their duty was to read and update every file related to Kabuga, as well as, renewing their contacts across the world that would help locate his hiding place and reveal his identity.
They began in Germany, where they had evidence of Kabuga’s physical presence in 2017, where he had travelled for treatment, and worked with several other countries including Kenya, Belgium and France.
According to a senior Rwandan official, Europe remains a safe haven for genocide fugitives because ‘’some have acquired nationalities of their host countries and the governments cannot extradite their own citizens against the Constitutional provisions, and yet they don't have laws repressing the crime of genocide in their penal laws. Fugitives also live under false names and nationalities and change addresses frequently.’’
He further said that the question of where Kabuga should be tried “is not about international law, but about jurisdiction the UN has mandated the case of Kabuga, besides the IRMICT. It would have been a problem if the IRMICT did not exists, but it does, and it is a designated tribunal to handle Kabuga's case.’’
In a visit to Rwanda in June 2019, Mr Brammertz declared at a press conference that Kabuga would be arrested, and that the IRMCT had a “fairly good understanding of where he was hiding.”
He, however, pointed out that corruption and lack of political will from some countries would be a hindrance.
At that time, Rwandan prosecutors renewed their pressure on the international community and Interpol to arrest Kabuga, who for long had used his financial muscle and contacts to stay under the radar, even after the US had placed a $5 million bounty for his arrest.
“This is a man who changed names and locations frequently. From his time as a fugitive in Kenya to fleeing to France, he used his money to corrupt officials and politicians in ensuring he remains hidden,” Faustin Nkusi, spokesperson of the Rwanda Public Prosecution Authority told The EastAfrican.
“France has done a commendable job as well as Interpol and other countries, to bring him to justice. This is a very important step towards serving justice and honouring the memory of those who were killed in the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi,” said Mr Nkusi.
In January 2016, Gen Jean-Claude Lafourcade, who led France's UN-mandated unit in Rwanda in 1994, angered Rwandan officials when he said during an inquiry that “no ammunition, not even a bullet” was provided by the French government to the interahamwe militia that carried out the genocide.
This prompted Rwanda to begin its own investigation—and a report was finally released in December 2017—firmly accusing French officials of complicity in the genocide, which further strained diplomatic ties between both countries.
Rwanda focused on 20 French politicians and soldiers and tasked French prosecutors to provide explanations for the allegations against them in the report.
“It would be incredibly powerful to see Kabuga prosecuted in full view of the communities most affected by his alleged crimes. Rwanda now has a long track record of prosecuting cases transferred from the ICTR and other foreign jurisdictions. There should be no impediment to this trial taking place in Rwanda - and it would bolster the ICTR's legacy to have assisted the Rwandan judicial system to the extent that it can try such a high profile genocide suspect as Kabuga,” Prof Clark said.
Considered as one of the top masterminds of the genocide, Kabuga was indicted in 1997 on seven counts of genocide, complicity in genocide, direct and public incitement to commit genocide, attempt to commit genocide, conspiracy to commit genocide, persecution, and extermination.