By Millicent Zighe
Twenty-three years after he was first indicted by a United Nations criminal tribunal, Félicien Kabuga pleaded not guilty on Wednesday to seven counts of genocide for his alleged role in the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.
Kabuga made his plea on Wednesday before the United Nations International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals. In 2010 this court, commonly referred to as The Mechanism, took over the work of another United Nations court, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR).
It was at the ICTR that Kabuga was first indicted in 1997 with seven counts of genocide as one of the suspected masterminds of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. This indictment was amended in 2011 soon after The Mechanism took over the handful of open cases that remained at the ICTR.
It was this amended 19-page indictment that Abubaccar Tambadou, the registrar of The Mechanism, read on Wednesday before Kabuga took a plea.
In the indictment Kabuga is alleged to have presided over a radio and television company, Radio Television Libre des Milles Collines (RTLM), that broadcast messages inciting its listeners against the Tutsi. According to the indictment, the RTLM broadcast where in Rwanda its listeners should go attack and kill Tutsis.
In the indictment Kabuga is also alleged to have presided over a fund _ Fonds de Défense Nationale (FDN) or National Defence Fund _ that was used to buy weapons, vehicles, uniforms and alcohol for the Interahamwe, a Hutu extremist militia that carried out many of the killings in the genocide.
In the indictment Kabuga is further alleged to have formed his own militia, Kabuga’s Interahamwe, that he directed to attack and kill Tutsis in the Kimironko area of Kigali, Rwanda’s capital.
According to the indictment, Kabuga is alleged to have committed all these crimes between January 1, 1994 and July 17, 1994 in Kigali, Gisenyi and Kibuye. The indictment does not say how many deaths Kabuga is alleged to have been responsible for but at the end of the genocide an estimated 800,000 people were killed, most of them Tutsis. The genocide took place between April 7, 1994 and July 17, 1994.
“When carrying out the criminal conduct alleged in this indictment, Félicien Kabuga had the intent to destroy in whole or in part persons identified as Tutsis and acted to discriminate against Tutsis on racial and political grounds,” said Tambadou.
After Tambadou finished reading the indictment, Single Judge Iain Bonomy asked Kabuga whether he wished to make a plea at that point. Kabuga spoke to one of his lawyers closest to where he was seated and said he wished to remain silent.
“Given the situation, I would be grateful if you could consider this lack of response as a plea of not guilty on all the counts, under the rules and procedures,” Emmanuel Altit, Kabuga’s lead lawyer, asked the court.
For many people Kabuga’s appearance in court on Wednesday is the first time they got to see him since he fled Rwanda at the end of genocide in July 1994. His court appearance was streamed on the website of The Mechanism. Once he fled Rwanda Kabuga stayed in a number of African and European countries over the years but his identity became a source of mystery with the passage of time.
On Wednesday, Kabuga was in wheelchair, dressed in a dark blue suit, a light blue white striped shirt and a dark blue white polka dot tie. He also wore a dark blue sweater under his suit’s jacket.
At the start of Wednesday’s hearing Judge Bonomy confirmed Kabuga spoke and understood Kinyarwanda and he had a Kinyarwanda-speaking lawyer near him to assist him. Altit leads Kabuga’s legal team that is also made up of Jennifer Naouri and Dov Jacobs, all of whom were present in court on Wednesday.
Also early in the hearing Judge Bonomy said that a report on Kabuga’s health was being prepared by doctors where Kabuga is in custody. Judge Bonomy said the report would help the trial chamber decide how to take care of Kabuga’s health as the case against him progressed. During Wednesday’s hearing, Judge Bonomy stopped proceedings three times for allow for a 30-minute break each time. He did this for Kabuga to rest as Altit had said Kabuga was very tired. According to the indictment read in court, Kabuga is 85 years old.
In response to questions from Judge Bonomy, Prosecutor Serge Brammertz said he intends to file a further amended indictment by January next year. Brammertz said he estimated he would be ready for trial about six months after the court made a decision on the further amended indictment.
Bonomy conducted Wednesday’s hearing as a Single Judge because it was primarily a procedural one for the court to see Kabuga, confirm the language he communicates in, make sure he is informed of his fair trial rights and have the indictment read to him. In future hearings, Bonomy will be joined by Judges Graciela Susana Gatti Santana and Elizabeth Ibanda-Nahamya. Bonomy is the Presiding Judge of the three-person trial chamber overseeing the case against Kabuga.
As part of measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, everyone who was in the courtroom on Wednesday wore a face mask unless they were speaking. Judge Bonomy had plexiglass shielding him on three sides as did Kabuga where he was seated. The guards watching over Kabuga wore face shields and disposable gloves in addition to face masks.
Judge Bonomy observed at the start of Wednesday’s hearing that the court had to wait for 10 days after Kabuga arrived in The Hague, Netherlands to hold a hearing. He said this was a requirement of The Netherlands that anyone coming into the country needed to be quarantined for 10 days as a measure to prevent the possible spread of coronavirus.
Kabuga arrived in The Hague on October 26 after a court in France allowed him to be transferred to The Mechanism in execution of an arrest warrant that had been issued against Kabuga. The French court reached this decision in proceedings that began after Kabuga was arrested on May 16 this year near Paris, the French capital. His arrest in May in a flat belonging to one of his children ended Kabuga’s 23 years as a fugitive since he was first indicted in 1997.