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Rwanda: Félicien Kabuga arrested in France after 26 years on the run

By Mehdi Ba, Romain Gras
Posted on Monday, 18 May 2020 14:00

Felicien Kabuga features in the "Wanted" posters during a conference on June 12 2002 by Pierre-Richard Prosper, US Ambassador-at-large for war crimes issues. REUTERS/George Mulala

Suspected of having financed Rwanda's genocide, Félicien Kabuga went on a wild ride for 26 years before being arrested in Paris.

Had he changed his identity? Did he change his face following a plastic surgery operation? Was he still alive?

For nearly twenty-six years, the hunt for Félicien Kabuga fuelled numerous rumours and generated successive glimmers of hope among the survivors, which were to be inexorably extinguished in the face of his unparalleled ability to continuously escape justice.

Always wanted, never caught, the man often presented as the “financier” of the genocide against the Tutsis, which killed more than a million people between April and July 1994, was finally arrested by the French gendarmerie on 16 May 2020, at 6:30am., in an apartment in Asnières-sur-Seine, a suburb of Paris.

Stripped of his greying hair and large glasses, closely shaved and dressed in a sober navy blue sweater, the 84-year-old fugitive resided there under a false identity “thanks to a well-functioning mechanism and the complicity of his children,” the joint statement of the French Ministry of Justice and the National Gendarmerie said.

“It came out of the blue!” said Alain Gauthier, co-founder, with his wife Dafroza, of the Collectif des parties civiles pour le Rwanda (CPCR), which has been tracking refugees in France since 2001 who are suspected of having taken part in the Tutsi genocide. “It’s an immense joy: nobody believed in it any more! We were far from suspecting that he could be on French soil. He probably benefited from support, but all this remains very mysterious. »

Extremely rich and influential

For more than 26 years, with the discreet support of certain governments and the help of relatives who have remained loyal to him, Félicien Kabuga has constantly managed to escape justice, from Kenya to the DRC and from Germany to France, via Belgium.

Born in Muniga, in the northern Rwandan prefecture of Byumba, this prosperous, influential and mysterious businessman was a key cog in the wheel of the regime of Juvénal Habyarimana, the Hutu president who ruled Rwanda from 1973 to 1994.

READ MORE Genocide in Rwanda: The mechanisms of denial

Félicien Kabuga was, among other things, one of the main backers of the presidential party, the National Republican Movement for Democracy and Development (MRND). He also founded and financed the infamous Radio-Télévision libre des Mille Collines (RTLM), which, from July 1993 until the end of the genocide, propagated messages of hatred and calls for the extermination of the Tutsis.

Family network

In the early 1990s, the man was a successful businessman. He owned, among other things, several hundred hectares of tea plantations, a flour mill, but also a large real estate park in the capital including hotels, a shopping mall and personal properties to accommodate his large family. Beyond his personal fortune, this businessman was devoted to the cause of “Hutu Power” who also made great use of another major asset of his: his family network.

Two daughters, out of his eleven children, are married to the sons of the former Rwandan president Juvénal Habyarimana, Léon and Jean-Pierre. Two other sons-in-law held high positions. One of them is Augustin Ngirabatware, Minister of Planning from 1990 to 1994. The other was Fabien Singaye, officially second secretary of the Rwandan embassy in Switzerland, who actively monitored from the Swiss city of Bern, opponents of the regime suspected of belonging to the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF).

In this capacity, Singaye was in contact with the former captain of the French gendarmerie Paul Barril, the former number two in the anti-terrorist cell of the Elysée Palace, later converted to a private security, who would  support the Rwandan authorities in the middle of the genocide.

Singaye later became advisor to former Central African President François Bozizé and participated, as a “translator”, in the controversial investigation into the attack on President Habyarimana’s plane on 6 April 1994, first led by Judge Jean-Louis Bruguière – also close to Barril.

Réseau Zéro

His sprawling network in Rwanda’s financial, political and diplomatic circles at the time made Félicien Kabuga a discreet figure in the upper echelons of the State and a key element in the preparation of the genocide.

In particular, he was reportedly a member of “Akazu” (the Little House in Kinyarwanda) and of “Réseau Zéro” (Zero Network). This small circle, which is suspected to have been inspired by Juvénal Habyarimana’s wife, Agathe Kanziga – who now lives in France – brought together several extremist cadres of the regime, including Colonel Théoneste Bagosora, considered to be “the mastermind of the genocide”, Protais Zigiranyirazo, the First Lady’s brother, and Seraphin Rwabukumba, who was also a member of the Akazu and the Réseau Zéro.

“Félicien Kabuga is one of those dignitaries without whom the genocide would never have had the means to be executed so quickly,” Jean Damascène Bizimana, the executive secretary of the National Commission for the Fight against Genocide (CNLG), told Jeune Afrique.

“In the years preceding the massacres, he played an organizing role in the repression of the Tutsis. Between 1993 and 1994, in addition to financing RTLM, he also imported more than 580 tonnes of machetes, an order placed with the British firm Shillington via the Rwandex company, where Eugène Mbarushimana, an Interahamwe executive [married to another of Kabuga’s daughters, Winnie], worked,” adds Jean Damascène Bizimana.

Effective control over the Interahamwe

Agricultural tools had been carefully stored in a shed owned by Kabuga in Kigali before being distributed to the population to become the main weapons of the genocide. Between April and July 1994, according to the indictment of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), the businessman is accused, among other things, of having planned the transport of arms and militiamen to Gisenyi, in the north-west of the country. The indictment also states that he exercised “effective control” over the Interahamwe, the militias at the heart of the genocidal machine.

He is also accused by the ICTR of having founded and presided over the National Defence Fund (NDF), which was intended to help the interim government – in office during the genocide – finance the militias. Until June 1994, Kabuga is also said to have organised numerous meetings at the Meridien Hotel in Gisenyi to continue financing the killers, before fleeing in the face of advancing of RPF troops.

At the beginning of his escape

As the rebels led by Paul Kagame took control of the country and the remnants of the genocidal government and its army took refuge in the former Zaire (now DRC), on the other side of Lake Kivu, the extremely wealthy businessman did not linger among them.

His interminable escape under protection began on 22 July 1994. On that day, with a valid visa, he managed to reach the Swiss Confederation, where he stayed for less than a month before being expelled.

Spotted by the Rwandan diaspora in Switzerland, he escaped before a complaint could be lodged against him. According to the specialized site Trial Watch, the Swiss government has granted him and his wife and seven of their children the sum of 21,302 Swiss francs to cover the costs of the Kabuga family’s journey to the DRC. Before leaving Swiss soil, Félicien Kabuga even had time to go to a branch of the Union of Swiss Banks (UBS) at Geneva-Cointrin airport to withdraw money.

Protected by Daniel arap Moi

Over the next few years, his whereabouts were unknown. But at the end of the 1990s, a persistent rumour located him in Kenya. It could be argued that President Daniel arap Moi, who was close to his Rwandan counterpart Juvénal Habyarimana (assassinated on 6 April 1994), was complacent in offering Kabuga asylum, in the aftermath of the genocide, in addition to several other Rwandans involved in the massacres.

READ MORE No place for Rwanda genocide convicts as court prepares to wind down

Thanks to his fortune, valued at some 20 million dollars, Kabuga invested in the country and enjoyed the protection of the highest Kenyan authorities, right up to the head of state and his direct entourage. Year after year, ICTR investigators were confronted with the impunity enjoyed on the ground by the “genocide financier”.

Even when, in June 2002, the United States launched a media campaign in Nairobi aimed at Kabuga’s arrest, with a reward of “up to $5m”, the walls of silence did not crack. At the time, the Americans suspected a member of Moi’s cabinet, Zakayo Cheruiyot, of helping Kabuga escape.

In June 2009, ICTR Prosecutor General Hassan Bubacar Jallow went so far as to refer the case to the UN Security Council to force the Kenyan authorities to prove that Kabuga had really left the country, as they claimed.

For several years now, pressure has been mounting on Mwai Kibaki, (who succeeded Moi in 2002), particularly from the American side. The following November, in Nairobi, Stephen Rapp, the US Ambassador Extraordinary for War Crimes, stated that Félicien Kabuga, one of the eleven Rwandan suspects then wanted by the ICTR, was still in Kenya. Before him, his predecessors, Pierre-Richard Prosper and Clint Williamson, had used the same language.

An incriminating USB key

Was Félicien Kabuga still in Kenya on this date? Nothing is certain, because two years earlier, it was near Frankfurt, Germany, that investigators found him.

On 7 September 2007, German police officers knocked on the door of the home of one of his many sons-in-law, Augustin Ngirabatware, Minister of Planning in the genocidal government between April and July 1994. He too was wanted by the ICTR. Several years later he was found and sentenced to 30 years in prison.

At the sight of the police officers who came to arrest him, Ngirabatware took a USB key out of his pocket, threw it on the ground and destroyed it with his heel. Detained by the police, he is taken into custody. What was he trying to hide?

To get to the bottom of it, investigators decided to entrust the debris of the device to an analysis laboratory. It would take several weeks before they were able to talk. However, the technicians managed to extract several documents, one of which was of interest: a hospital bill, worth about 5,000 euros, in the name of a Tanzanian citizen who had come to receive treatment for “chronic respiratory insufficiency”.

Research by the German police finally enabled them to identify the mysterious patient as Félicien Kabuga. Armed with the photo on the passport with which he entered the country, the police officers carried out a neighbourhood inquiry. The results of their inquiry led them to conclude that the genocidaire wanted by all police forces in the world had indeed stayed at his son-in-law’s house.

Witnesses said they saw him move around with crutches. According to other clues, he had even been in the property on the day of Ngirabatware’s arrest.

Networks in Europe

Félicien Kabuga was close to President Habyarimana and he wove networks at the highest level even before the genocide, especially in Kenya where he owned properties,” said Jean Damascène Bizimana of CNLG. “His financial means and the support he enjoyed within the Kenyan high administration, police and intelligence services enabled him to escape the investigations of the ICTR for many years. Some of the informants who had helped to locate him were even murdered.”

Félicien Kabuga, 16 May 2020, the day of his arrest near Paris. © DR

Would he have benefited from such complicity in Europe? “Yes, he maintained similar networks there, which allowed him to cross borders with impunity using passports of convenience, under a false name, adds Jean Damascène Bizimana. Apart from Kabuga, other wanted criminals, such as Major Protais Mpiranya, also benefitted from the same type of support from personalities who remained loyal to the former genocidal regime. These circles continue to operate, fuelled by the material and financial resources of Félicien Kabuga.”

End of exile in France

On 16 May, it was finally the French gendarmes of the Central Office for the Fight against Crimes against Humanity (OCLCH), supported by the Observation and Surveillance Group of the Ile-de-France Gendarmerie and a platoon of the Republican Guard, who finally put an end to the long impunity of Félicien Kabuga, who was found residing in an anonymous apartment a stone’s throw from Paris.

Following Kabuga’s arrest, historian Florent Piton, a specialist on Rwanda, posted two questions on his twitter feed a few hours later.

  1. “Will we finally learn how the genocide against the Tutsis was financed, are other unknown people still at large?
  2. “Since when, and by what means, has a man indicted by the ICTR since 1997 and cited as early as 1994 as one of those suspected of having played a major role in the Tutsi genocide been able to settle and live in France?:

Would he have found in this country [France], in addition to the “complicity of his children” mentioned in the Ministry of Justice’s press release, other complacent and influential networks? In November 1999, his son-in-law Augustin Ngirabatware narrowly escaped arrest while living in the 13th arrondissement of Paris. His lawyer at the time was a former French Minister of Cooperation, Michel Aurillac, who also defended the interests of the Kabuga family.

At that time, Ngirabatware was allowed to move freely, with a Gabonese passport. And according to documents by the French researcher André Guichaoua, the head of protocol of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs at the time, had granted him a special card for Immunity and Privileges Service that served as a residence permit and was valid until April 2000.

Along with his long-awaited arrest, another story may also surface alongside: the 26 years of complicity across all levels from those who helped Félicien Kabuga avoid this very ending.

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