On April 15, 1994, just days into a bloodletting that would leave nearly a tenth of Rwanda's population dead, a mob of ethnic Hutus gathered in the village marketplace in Birambo. Incited and possibly organized by local Hutu leaders, the mob ransacked homes and businesses owned by ethnic Tutsis. In the days that followed, hundreds of Tutsis who fled into the nearby mountains were hunted down and killed. Seemingly anomic yet carefully organized, episodes like that in Birambo would be repeated thousands of times over the coming months, as militants, politicians, and prominent local Hutus stoked and even stage-managed a gruesome war of all against all.
Wichita, Kansas is eight time zones away from Birambo. It's a strange place for a high-stakes legal and political showdown over how to punish or even identify the local-scale leaders of the Rwandan genocide, a matter that's morphed into a debate over the legacy of the genocide itself. Yet the freedom of Lazare Kobagaya, an 84-year-old Rwandan immigrant and Kansas resident, depends on how these two interrelated debates play out in a federal courtroom.
Kobagaya is currently on trial in Wichita for allegedly lying about his involvement in the events in and around Birambo while he was in the process of applying for U.S. citizenship. The government, which began presenting its case last week, believes that Kobagaya helped lead and organize the Hutu mob in Birambo, and violated federal U.S. law by claiming on his N-400 naturalization form that he had never "persecuted (either directly or indirectly) any person because of race, religion, national origin, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion." If convicted, Kobagaya faces jail time, the revocation of his U.S. citizenship, and deportation to Rwanda, where he would likely face another trial -- this time for genocide.
On its simplest level, the case, which is the first Rwandan genocide-related prosecution in U.S. history, concerns what Kobagaya was doing during the opening weeks of the Rwandan genocide. But there's a political and even historical dimension to it as well. According to defense filings, Kobagaya's name never appears in records of the genocide collected by Human Rights Watch and the Rwandan government. The bulk of the evidence against him comes from eyewitnesses currently living in Rwanda, people who the defense claims were hand-selected by a Rwandan government that has used its own version of the events of 1994 to maintain its grip on power.
Rwandan president Paul Kagame, who was reelected in August 2010 with 93 percent of the vote, has made it a criminal offense to question his government's official version of the genocide. Since Kagame is the former leader of the Rwandan Patriotic Front, the Tutsi militia that halted the killings in July of 1994, that version is as much about enshrining a Tutsi narrative of the conflict as it is about national reconciliation.
So Rwandan law echoes Germany's well-known prohibition of Holocaust denial, and aims at preventing conspiracy theorists and genocide denialists from destabilizing the country. But opposition journalists and politicians, as well as foreign NGOs, have been targeted for spreading "genocide ideology" and "divisionism." Rwandan prosecutors have aggressively pursued alleged genocidaires or "genocide deniers" living abroad, while stripping genocide suspects of due process rights within Rwanda itself.
Kobagaya could well turn out to be a liar and a murderer -- but he's already emblematic of the imperfect, highly-politicized, and even tainted process of doling out justice for the Rwandan genocide.
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How American prosecutors initially connected Kobagaya to the events in Birambo is unclear. A spokesperson for the Department of Justice's Human Rights and Special Prosecutions division refused to explain how Kobagaya first appeared on the government's radar, citing a department-wide policy of not commenting on ongoing cases.
The government's suspicions may have originated with Kobagaya's recent offer to record video testimony on behalf of Francois Bazaramba, a former neighbor whom a Finnish court sentenced to life in prison last year for his role in facilitating the violence in Birambo. In interviews with U.S. immigration officers, Kobagaya had claimed that he had lived in Burundi between 1993 and 1995. By offering firsthand knowledge of events in Rwanda in 1994, Kobagaya exposed his own lie.
The first motion filed in the Kobagaya case was a request for the Finnish government to share virtually all of the evidence it had gathered investigating Bazaramba, who was implicated in the genocide when his name appeared on a list of suspects that the Rwandan government published in 2006.
In a motion filed in January 2010, Kobagaya's legal team offers its own version of how their client came to be accused of mass murder. "In this case, the United States is serving as a conduit for the Rwandan government to investigate and prosecute Mr. Kobagaya," wrote lawyers Kurt Kerns and Melanie Morgan in a motion to dismiss the case filed in January 2010. The defense team alleged that Kobagaya had been investigated "at the behest of the Rwandan government."
Presiding judge Monti Belot found "no evidence" to support the defense's claim. Tom Ndahiro, a self-described "genocide scholar" who has been linked to Paul Kagame, also denied any coordination between the U.S. and Rwandan governments in identifying Kobagaya. "I don't think this was a case conducted by the government of Rwanda but by the United States," he told me. "I think there must have been something that triggered his -- that made him come back to the limelight. Otherwise there are many people who are accused of that crime but who have been here without the U.S. government's notice." Ndahiro says he does not formally work for the Kagame government, but when I called the Rwandan embassy in Washington, D.C., for comment on the case, someone passed the phone to him.