The first ever trial in the United States involving a Genocide suspect should have focused more on Genocide crimes committed by Lazare Kobagaya, rather than fraud charges and false declarations made by the 84-year old to immigration authorities.
Nevertheless, the Government of Rwanda has expressed satisfaction that the trial has finally opened and could hopefully lay the ground for similar cases to start or eventually lead to the hearing of Genocide crimes Kobagaya is alleged to have committed.
The Prosecutor General, Martin Ngoga, yesterday said that it is rather strange that the US was focusing more on fraud charges when the suspect has other charges of higher gravity - Genocide related - which should be central in the trial.
“The immigration case is a bit intriguing because it should be the other way round. If we had a choice, people would have been more preoccupied with the charges on the genocide and the question of telling lies to immigration authorities would come as an additional part of the case,” Ngoga said.
Ngoga, however, said that the case “is better than nothing” because it is the first of its kind on US soil and it will likely pave way for subsequent action.
“If the process in America succeeds to prove the fact that he was actually involved in the Genocide, which is why he lied to authorities in the US as he was gaining citizenship, it will pave way for another action which we can’t contemplate,” Ngoga said.
He added that after the fraud charges, Genocide charges would likely follow because one judicial process would likely lead to another.
Kobagaya, who is accused of masterminding massacres during the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, is currently facing charges in a US immigration court.
Prosecutors in their opening statements portrayed Kobagaya as a “leader and organiser”, who ordered brutal ethnic killings and instructed militias to burn down houses of his Tutsi neighbours in Butare, Southern Province.
More than 50 witnesses from five countries are expected to testify in the case.
Valens Murindangabo, Kobagaya’s neighbour during the Genocide, on Friday testified against him. He narrated how the wealthy Kobagaya, on April 15, 1994, led a mob of about 100 militias that burned down houses of Tutsis.
He identified Kobagaya in the courtroom as the man who told the crowd that “what makes people fear is to burn their houses so they won't come back.”
Murindangabo, who admitted he participated in the arson, marked on a map what had been the location of about a dozen of those houses, and testified Kobagaya's job was to supervise the burning to ensure the houses were completely destroyed.
He also described how the mob would put eucalyptus branches inside the houses so their grass-thatched roofs would burn and set fire to the walls outside.
Prosecutors told jurors Kobagaya was 67 at the time of the genocide and a wealthy man by Rwandan standards. The government contends he used that influence to lead others in his small community.
Kobagaya is also accused of participating in attacks that occurred between April 16 and 19, 1994, against Tutsis who had fled to Nyakizu to escape the Genocide. Hundreds were killed in those attacks.