The saying goes: ‘That’s just typical. You stand for hours waiting for a bus and then two come along at once’. Perhaps the same can be said of news from the United Nations International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals (IRMCT) also referred to as the Mechanism regarding alleged genocide perpetrators.
You wait two decades and suddenly, in the space of a few days, you get news about two of its three most wanted fugitives.
While for most, especially the survivors of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, the news was excellent—the capture of long-time fugitive Felicien Kabuga and the death of Augustin Bizimana also brought with it a number of questions and strange reactions from some media commentators, politicians and experts.
The myths and mystique around Kabuga have grown over the years until, with his arrest, a full-blown media storm of interest suddenly descended.
For two years after being deported from Switzerland in late 1994, the businessman lived the high life in Nairobi at his ‘Spanish Villa’ on the exclusive Hurlingham estate with Protais Zigiranyirazo (Z), Agathe Habyarimana and a host of other members of Akazu to keep him company nearby, planning and funding their expected invasion.
After this plan failed, the next decade saw him moonlight across continents proving the value of money overrides the value of justice in the opinion of rather too many senior politicians and security officials. Perhaps his nickname of ‘the financier of the genocide’ could be more appropriately changed to the ‘financier of justice evasion.’
Once Kabuga’s arrest became known ten days ago, all sorts of hyperbolic remarks were made about him. He was the ‘Eichmann’ of Rwanda; a UK academic noted ‘without Kabuga there would have been no genocide.’
One news outlet reported that Kabuga ‘had established the interahamwe’, others that he ‘owned RTLM’ or was the ‘majority share-holder’.
The BBC also reported that he ‘founded RTLM.’ I’m not sure this hype is either useful or indeed true though no doubt it expresses a well-founded delight in the arrest of such a high-profile figure.
For a start, Eichmann was technocrat; he dealt with train timetables, with statistics and organising mass murder through getting the victims to the places where they would be slaughtered. He was a miserable figure, a petty bureaucrat; when he was uncovered in his hiding place in Buenos Aires, he was in a desperate state of poverty.
To say the Genocide against the Tutsi would not have happened without Kabuga is also dubious, and dangerously downplays the role of the likes of Bagosora, Nzirorera, and Nsengiyumva etc who were essential elements.
Kabuga certainly played an important role as president of the board of RTLM –but he did not own it, and was not even the majority shareholder: the driving force in setting it up and its editorial content was Ferdinand Nahimana and Habyarimana owned twice the number of shares in this private company.
Kabuga did not set up the Interahamwe either – but like fellow (Rwf) billionaire Joseph Nzirorera (who incidentally owned the same number of RTLM shares)- is alleged to have fully supported fundraising for it in full understanding that this militia was designed purely to terrorise and kill ‘the enemy.’
Evidence points to him initiating the National Defence Fund (FDN) in Gisenyi and then persuading regime leaders to spread it across the country.
While the dust settles from the arrest and the self-congratulation of those concerned rumbles on, perhaps a few questions can be posed. The Federal Foreign Office in Berlin issued a statement praising the Tribunal and French authorities.
Treated in Germany
Yet Kabuga lived in Germany, was treated in hospital there and then was able to flee arrest in 2007.
Those French units that did the hard work to track and arrest Kabuga are certainly to be congratulated. But many questions arise. Did Kabuga have official French residence papers – and if so, how did he obtain them? How long had he lived there? And if there had been no pandemic, would this effort to find the ‘most wanted international fugitive’ have continued to go nowhere?
The picture given is that it’s only the inability to continue on other cases caused by COVID-19 that led to renewed interest in Kabuga. And in terms of leading Akazu, you do not have to look too far from Kabuga’s hideout to find another.
As Alain Gauthier has noted, living just a few miles south from Kabuga in another rich suburb of Paris is his former Nairobi neighbour, Agathe Habyarimana. Their respective children Françoise and Leon, who enjoyed a lavish wedding in the Kenyan capital in 1995, also live in the city.
Despite being refused refugee status after an asylum commission ruled Agathe was ‘at the centre of the genocide’ – a view upheld by the Conseil d’Etat in 2009, and being arrested and charged with genocide back in 2010, Agathe’s case since has been conveniently dropped by French justice. Politics and justice rarely work well together.
While in an ideal world, Kabuga would face his accusers in Kigali, it undoubtedly won’t happen. At best, he will appear in the shiny new courtroom at the Mechanism’s building in Arusha.
A crumb of comfort awaits the elderly fugitive if he ends up in the green-washed cells of the detention facilities (UNDF) there; his son-in-law Augustin Ngirabatware, who he shared a house with in Germany in 2007, will be there to welcome him. Ngirabatware is currently awaiting (another) trial.
Already serving a 30-year sentence for genocide, he is now facing charges of witness tampering.
MICT might also like to assure itself of exactly what Kabuga’s advanced age really is – it is sure to be a point his defence will use at every opportunity in their delaying tactics.
MICT’s 2011 indictment noted he was born in 1935 (85 years old).
The world media reported variously he was 85 or 84. At his appearance in court on 19 May, Kabuga said he was born on 1 March 1933 – 87 years old.
Then again, the former head of the Mechanism Theodore Meron is still ‘working hard’ as a judge aged 90, though many may well be thankful he will not be in charge this time round.
It was good to see a UK parliamentarian voice a plea last week that his government urgently get to grips with their commitment to put before justice those accused of the most horrific of crimes.
He noted in an article in The Times: ‘Does anyone seriously believe that the authorities would take the same laid-back approach if these allegations were made against Holocaust perpetrators?’
If he thought the answer was that Nazi killers had indeed been marched poste haste into trial, the (very) sad – and unpalatable – answer is he is mistaken.
For the past 70 years, every UK government has been entirely consistent when it comes to those accused of genocide wherever it took place.
It does next to nothing; whoever they are and however many they may have killed, raped or tortured.
There have been no UK prosecutions for genocide and only a single successful one for crimes against humanity.
When it was revealed the UK had, and still was, playing host to suspected Holocaust perpetrators in the mid-1980’s - 40 years after the crime – it still took another 10 years to mount 2 prosecutions, only one of which succeeded. By this time suspected killers had died comfortably in their beds.
At present, the UK’s judicial efforts make even the French, with 3 convictions in 26 years – look impressive.
As an aside to this, it is interesting to note the new UK Labour opposition party leader, Sir Kier Starmer, when he worked as a barrister, briefly represented one of the five UK accused, Celestin Ugirashebuja, in his bid to avoid extradition; so at least he should be aware of the case if Labour come to power.
While the coverage of the arrest of Kabuga was all consuming, it was striking how the announcement of the death of former defence minister Augustin Bizimana was muted at best, and was received, at least internationally, with deafening indifference. Yet here was an individual with far more blood on his hands.
Facing a 13 count indictment (Kabuga faces 7), Bizimana was a key figure who linked together the extremist elements of the FAR, the militias, and regime politicians. Like Kabuga, he came from Byumba and had enjoyed a meteoric rise during the 1980s.
From working with an insignificant development project in Mutara, he became a protégé of Monsieur Z after meeting him in Canada and was promoted to run the lucrative state Pyrethrum concern.
In 1992, the one-time agronomist and MRND loyalist was made prefect of Byumba and enjoyed ‘working’ with individuals such as Jean-Baptiste Gatete, the notorious genocidal bourgmeister.
When minister of defence James Gasana fled to Belgium after Akazu death threats in summer 1993, Bizimana, despite having no military knowledge, was the perfect replacement.
Though he was in Cameroon from April 6 to 9, 1994 he was chosen by Bagosora and MRND leaders Edouard Karemera and Mathieu Ngirumpatse on his return to continue as minister of defence and provide the vital link role between Bagosora and Kambanda – who was a personal friend.
Men like retired Colonel Aloys Simba were appointed by Bizimana to arm and train militia (‘civil defence’) in Butare and Gikongoro where tens of thousands of Tutsis were massacred. In media interviews he denied both the genocide and any responsibility for ‘massacres’ by the interim regime or himself.
Privately, he decided against a happy retirement in Nairobi or Yaounde with other Akazu.
Within weeks of fleeing across the border into Goma alongside genocidal Prime Minister Kambanda and his ‘bunch of killers’, as Mitterrand termed them, Bizimana vanished – along with around $1 million of regime funds which had been entrusted to him to buy arms for the FAR and pay the French mercenary Paul Barril.
After sending his family ahead of him, Bizimana joined them in Congo-Brazzaville where they were warmly received by the authorities – notably a very senior general who had befriended Bizimana while on deployment in Rwanda in 1993. Unfortunately for Bizimana, a long and fruitful retirement from his crimes did not happen.
He suffered from a chronic illness and emergency treatment in South Africa failed to assist him. His funeral in Pointe Noire in August 2000 was attended by several Congolese generals.
The DNA samples taken from the grave were non-conclusive and, like Mpiranya who has also been declared dead, it was assessed as a ruse and that Bizimana was still on the run. Questions remain surrounding quite when the DNA samples were retested and when the later positive match was made; and why MICT prosecutor Serge Brammertz chose to announce Bizimana’s death when he did?
Just two days before the announcement, international media (including The New Times) were still reporting the need to find the two main fugitives (Bizimana and Mpiranya).
While the death is clearly a relief to the MICT tracking team which is under huge financial pressure and faces a very uncertain future, it is a blow not just to survivors but to those fighting denial in the future.
Every trial – and this is why Kabuga’s is so important – brings with it the opportunity for witnesses, documents, exhibits and vital evidence of the crime to be shown to the world alongside the alleged criminal.
It is this documentation that can in the future fight from a solid platform the denial, revisionism and conspiracy theories that otherwise become so pervasive. Bizimana’s death means the evidence not just against him but that which uncovers the many-faceted parts of his crimes and other criminals who were involved, will not now be seen or available to posterity.
Bizimana in life and death lacked the media personality hype that surrounded Kabuga. But his key role in the genocide against the Tutsi should in no way be underplayed. He was a man quite prepared to organise the mass murder of his own people due to ideological prejudices and personal benefit in terms of power and wealth.
That he was prepared to rob even his own genocidal comrades perhaps says everything about Augustin Bizimana’s moral compass. The ends really did justify the means for him.
Andrew Wallis is an author, academic and journalist. His book ‘Stepp’d in Blood: Akazu and the architects of the Rwandan genocide against the Tutsi’ was published in 2019 and tells the personal story of the rise and fall of the family network behind the genocide.