In what is said to be the first criminal prosecution brought by the US government involving genocide not related to Nazi war crimes, an American citizen is to be tried on April 26 in Wichita, Kansas, for allegedly lying to immigration authorities about his role in the 1994 Rwandan genocide. As the last perpetrators of the Holocaust pass away, the trial is a sign that the Justice Department has broadened its prosecutions to encompass more recent atrocities.
Unlike countries such as Canada, Switzerland and Belgium, whose genocide laws have universal jurisdiction, whereby prosecutions can apply to crimes committed by noncitizens outside the country’s boundaries, the United States can only prosecute such crimes committed within the United States or committed abroad by US nationals. But it can prosecute on immigration-related matters, and that’s what the US district court in Kansas intends in its landmark indictment of 84-year-old Lazare Kobagaya.
Even though the case hinges on immigration issues, the question of genocide will be raised in the courtroom, since the defense is expected to argue that to prove Kobagaya participated in the slaughter, the prosecution will have to prove that genocide occurred. The indictment states that Kobagaya, a Hutu, directed other Hutus to burn down the houses of and murder hundreds of Tutsis around Birambo, a town in the Nyakizu region of southern Rwanda. Kobagaya is also accused of stabbing a man who defied his order.
About 20,000 people were killed in the Nyakizu community, according to Timothy Longman, a former director of Human Rights Watch in Rwanda who wrote about the genocide for the organization’s 1999 report Leave None to Tell the Story: Genocide in Rwanda. The report estimated that 500,000 to 800,000 were killed throughout Rwanda during the 1994 carnage.
Kobagaya, who had run a sorghum-grinding mill in Birambo, became a naturalized US citizen in 2006. If convicted on the two charges—unlawfully procuring citizenship and fraudulently obtaining and misusing an alien registration card—he could lose his citizenship, be deported, receive up to ten years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000. The Justice Department claims that Kobagaya lied to immigration authorities by stating that he lived in Burundi from 1993 to 1995, when he should also have stated that he lived in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide (Kobagaya denies intentional misrepresentation; Birambo is about a three-hour walk to the Burundi border, and inhabitants can easily pass back and forth between the countries). The indictment also claims that Kobagaya lied in denying he had committed crimes for which he had not been arrested, and in denying in his immigrant visa and alien registration that he had “committed the crime of genocide.” He denies these charges.
Kobagaya was indicted in 2009 after he had earlier given video testimony in defense of his former neighbor François Bazaramba, charged by the government of Finland with crimes against humanity for planning and carrying out the killings of 5,000 Tutsis. In June 2010 a Finnish court sentenced Bazaramba to life imprisonment for his role in the genocide. After Kobagaya testified, Finnish police contacted American authorities, and the Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations began its inquiry. (OSI was created in 1979 to find and prosecute Nazi war criminals living in the United States. In March 2010 it became part of the Justice Department’s Human Rights and Special Prosecutions Section. Eli Rosenbaum, OSI’s director of strategy and policy, said that about thirty people were under investigation for Nazi war crimes and another eighty for crimes in more recent conflicts, according to a 2009 New York Times interview.)
One of the difficulties of the Kobagaya case is locating witnesses willing to testify. Rwanda is “a country in dictatorship” and its citizens “can’t say what they want to say,” said Kurt Kerns, Kobagaya’s main defense attorney. The safety of witnesses who testify against their neighbors or in support of Hutu defendants—and who therefore could face possible retribution—is also of concern to Human Rights Watch, which had been subpoenaed by Kobagaya’s attorneys for the names of people it interviewed for its 1999 report. HRW claimed First Amendment rights and reporters’ privileges, but last October Judge Monti Belot ordered that the names be released. In his decision Belot wrote that while he was “not unmindful or insensitive” to concerns about the safety of Rwandans who had been interviewed, he found the concerns “overstated and speculative.”
The trial is expected to be unique and controversial. “Many witnesses,” the judge noted, “will have to come or be brought to the United States from Africa and perhaps other countries,” and “some of the witnesses may have criminal records stemming from their participation in the Rwanda genocide.”
In another example of its expanding scope regarding genocidal crimes, the Justice Department has filed charges against Beatrice Munyenyezi, a 41-year-old resident of Manchester, New Hampshire, for allegedly lying on her citizenship applications about her participation in roadblocks and ID checks that resulted in the killing of numerous Tutsis during the genocide. Her trial is scheduled to begin on May 17.