Rwanda: Ten things to know about Félicien Kabuga, alleged financier of the Tutsi genocide

By Romain Gras
Posted on Thursday, 29 September 2022 14:09

Félicien Kabuga (photo: twitter)

The historic trial of Rwanda’s Félicien Kabuga begins 29 September in The Hague. The former businessman, who was arrested in France in May 2020, is accused of having been the financier of the Tutsi genocide and is expected to appear in court after more than 20 years on the run. How did he escape justice for two decades? What was the exact role of this businessman, who was one of the founders of Radio Télévision Libre des Milles Collines - RTLM - (a Rwandan radio station that broadcast from July 1993-July 1994 and played a crucial role in inciting the genocide)? We have this 10-point portrait of Félicien Kabuga.

1. Health

This is one of the unknowns of the trial that starts 29 September: 89-year-old Kabuga’s health status. In France, where he has lived in recent years and where he was arrested in May 2020, his lawyers have continued to insist on his inability to appear. In The Hague, the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals decided otherwise: last June, it found that “the defence has not established that Kabuga is currently unfit to stand trial”.

However, since the experts called upon agreed “that he has had repeated acute health incidents” and that he requires “intensive medical care and monitoring”, the accused is being tried in The Hague and not in Arusha, Tanzania, as initially planned.

2. Lawyer

Kabuga will be defended by Emmanuel Altit, former counsel for Laurent Gbagbo before the International Criminal Court (ICC). But the lawyer and his client have been in conflict for months. A withdrawal procedure was even initiated in late January 2021, but the judges opposed it. The Hutu regime’s former moneyman wanted to entrust his defence to American Peter Robinson, who is used to handling cases related to the Tutsi genocide.

3. Fortune

The son of a peasant from northern Rwanda, Kabuga built his immense fortune running tea plantations before expanding his activities to import-export and real estate.

At the dawn of the Tutsi genocide, he was considered the country’s richest man. Post-1994, several of his assets in Belgium, France and Kenya were frozen. This wealth is still the subject of an intense battle between part of the Kabuga family, which wants access to it, and the justice system, which for the moment is opposed to releasing it.

4. Habyarimana connections

In the early 1990s, Kabuga was also one of the best connected men in Rwanda. At the time, his daughters Bernadette and Françoise were married  respectively to Jean-Pierre and Léon Habyarimana, two of President Juvénal Habyarimana’s sons. His daughter, Félicité, married Augustin Ngirabatware. Minister of Planning during the genocide, the latter is serving a 30-year prison sentence.

His other son-in-law, Fabien Singaye, was spying on opponents of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) at the time. Kabuga, for his part, was a member of the Akazu, a small group of extremists from the army and the business community who – alongside former first lady Agathe Habyarimana – are accused of having planned the genocide over a long period.

5. RTLM

The businessman was one of the founders of the infamous Radio Télévision Libre des Milles Collines (RTLM), whose calls for the massacres of Tutsis were a key element of the mobilisation before and during the genocide. Kabuga was also one of its shareholders. But what about his operational role? During the so-called “media trial”, his name was mentioned several times. According to the 2003 ruling, Kabuga and his associates “had knowledge of” and “defended” the content of RTLM’s broadcasts.

6. Machetes

The other point on which justice awaits Kabuga is his involvement with the genocidal government. On the one hand, there is his role in the creation of the National Defence Fund, a sort of popular fundraiser intended to finance the functioning and arming of the Hutu militia, Interahamwe. Then there is his support for a small group in the Kigali prefecture, known as the “Interahamwe of Kabuga”. Another of his sons-in-law, Eugène Mbarushimana, was its secretary general.

7. Daniel arap Moi

Kabuga’s long period on the run would not have been possible without a solid network of protectors. One of the most important was undoubtedly the Kenyan autocrat Daniel arap Moi, whose election campaign Kabuga is suspected of having financed in 1997. Moi was the fugitive’s “host” from 1995 to the early 2000s.

In Nairobi, Kabuga rubbed shoulders with other members of the genocidal regime, such as Agathe Habyarimana, and got back into industry, especially coffee.

8. Fiasco and false identities

False leads, missed arrests… In terms of tracking down the famous fugitive, there is no shortage of anecdotes. In the mid-2000s, on New Year’s Eve, the bloodhounds of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) thought they had caught him in Tanzania – the tip came from the FBI. A large force was deployed. The man turned out to be a pastor “with a vague resemblance” to the fugitive.

Over the years, Kabuga used no less than 26 fake identities.

​9. USB stick

The investigators’ biggest failure took place in 2007. In Frankfurt, the ICTR came to arrest Kabuga’s son-in-law, Augustin Ngirabatware, who had time to destroy a USB key before allowing himself to be arrested. The investigators nevertheless managed to extract documents and information, including the file on Félicien Kabuga’s admission to a German clinic. The justice system will work to establish that Kabuga never left Europe. It was only thanks to the shadowing of his children that he was finally located in the Paris suburb of Asnières-sur-Seine, thirteen years later, in a flat rented in the name of one of his sons.

10. Scar

To the gendarmes who burst into his home at 6:20am on 16 May 2020 and asked him to state his identity, Kabuga first replied that his name was “Antoine Tounga”, which was confirmed by the Congolese passport he holds. The officers confirmed the suspect’s identity thanks to a secret weapon: a scar of almost 9 cm under his right ear, the result of a minor surgical operation. The “955” operation, named for the resolution that created the ICTR, was a success. All that remains now is an investigation into the conclusion of this extraordinary case before the eyes of international justice.

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