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Defence says Rwanda accused was businessman not warlord

Top Rwandan genocide suspect Felicien Kabuga was not a warlord but merely a businessman caught up in the 1994 ethnic slaughter, his defence lawyers told a Hague tribunal on Friday.

Kabuga’s trial at a UN court began on Thursday with prosecutors accusing the 87-year-old of setting up hate media that urged ethnic Hutus to kill rival Tutsis and supplying death squads with machetes.

But in their opening statements his defence rejected the “caricature” of Kabuga, once one of Rwanda’s richest men, saying he was not responsible for what they called a “grassroots” explosion of violence.

Prosecutors were trying to “twist the facts and rewrite history”, lead defence lawyer Emmanuel Altit told the court.

Instead the allegations should be seen against the backdrop of years of civil conflict in Rwanda that proceeded the 100-day killing spree in which more than 800,000 people died, he said.

“In the context of the war, Felicien Kabuga’s conduct is seen in an entirely different light — he was no longer a warlord but a businessman caught up in the prevailing chaos,” added Altit.

Kabuga refused for a second day to appear in court in protest, after complaining that he had lost confidence in Altit, his court appointed attorney, and that the tribunal had refused to let him choose a new lawyer.

Describing Kabuga as a “farmer’s son” who taught himself how to read and write, Altit said the suspect raised himself to become a successful businessman whose wife came from a mixed Hutu-Tutsi family.

“He had good relations with everyone, rich and poor, Hutu and Tutsi,” he said.

– ‘Mostly music’ –

The defence played down Kabuga’s role in setting up Radio-Television Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM) — which prosecutors said helped fuel the genocide by calling for the extermination of Tutsi “cockroaches”.

The broadcaster launched the year before the genocide with “mostly music shows” and was not set up to fuel ethnic hatred, while Kabuga could not be held responsible for what journalists broadcast, said Altit.

Defence lawyers also denied that Kabuga directly supported the Interahamwe, a Hutu militia, during the genocide, by bankrolling them, organising training, and importing machetes and other weapons.

“Felicien Kabuga, a businessman, supposedly morphed overnight into a warlord,” said Altit. “These charges do not withstand analysis.”

Allegations that Kabuga was part of a pre-planned “conspiracy” by Hutus to commit genocide were also false because the bloodshed was “spontaneous”, Altit argued.

“What would have been Felicien Kabuga’s motive for such a frantic activity to destroy an ethnic group?” he asked.

More than 50 witnesses are expected to appear for the prosecution, starting next Wednesday, in a trial that is set to take months.

After fleeing Rwanda, Kabuga spent more than 20 years evading justice before his arrest in Paris in 2020.

He is one of the last Rwandan genocide suspects to face justice, with 62 convicted by the tribunal so far.

Rights groups and victims have described the trial as a big step forward in efforts to achieve justice more than a quarter of a century after the killings. AFP