An 84-year-old immigrant accused of participating in the 1994 Rwandan genocide is headed to trial in Kansas in an immigration case that the Justice Department says is the first of its kind in the U.S.
The case — which hinges on whether Lazare Kobagaya committed atrocities in Rwanda and therefore lied when he told U.S. immigration authorities that he had never committed a crime — is the first criminal prosecution in the United States requiring proof of genocide, according to the U.S. Justice Department. Jury selection was scheduled to start Tuesday morning, and more than 50 foreign witnesses from five countries have been brought in to testify under tight security.
Kobagaya is charged with unlawfully obtaining U.S. citizenship in 2006 and with fraud and misuse of an alien registration card. Kobagaya denies committing acts of genocide, and defense attorneys say they plan to call more than 20 witnesses from around the world, along with family members, to testify on his behalf.
An estimated 500,000 to 800,000 people were killed in Rwanda between April and July 1994. Most of the dead belonged to an ethnic group known as the Tutsi, while most of the killings were carried out by members of an ethnic group known as the Hutu.
Prosecutors contend Kobagaya concealed that he had lived in Rwanda during the genocide and participated in the attacks and slaughter of hundreds of Tutsis. They say he lied during immigration proceedings in Wichita when he said he lived in Burundi from 1993 to 1995.
If convicted, Kobagaya faces up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000 on each of the charges. But the indictment also seeks to revoke Kobagaya's U.S. citizenship, a move that would subject him to deportation. Family members have said they fear that could lead to his death.
Kobagaya's attorneys argued in a court filing on the eve of his trial that testimony of government witnesses can't be trusted. They contend the current Rwandan government is using its legal system, community-based courts known as "gacaca" and re-education camps to manipulate the truth about the country's history during that period in order to maintain its rule.
"A juror has to understand the human rights violations being committed by this government to understand the depths to which the Rwandan government will stoop to maintain power," defense attorneys said.
However, defense attorneys may not be able to use that argument during trial. U.S. District Judge Monti Belot already has prohibited the parties from referencing the current Rwandan government in opening statements.
Kobagaya's attorneys have asked the judge to reconsider that decision.
The U.S. Justice Department alleges that in April 1994 Kobagaya directed a gathering of Hutus to burn down houses belonging to the Tutsis. Prosecutors also contend he mobilized attackers and ordered and coerced them to kill hundreds of Tutsis.
Prosecutors allege Kobagaya worked with Francois Bazaramba, a former Rwandan pastor who was sentenced last year to life imprisonment by a Finnish court for committing genocide against the Tutsi minority in his home country in 1994.
One of his sons, Andre Kandy, told The Associated Press in April 2009 that his father was in Rwanda during the time in question as a Burundi refugee. His family also said Kobagaya was mostly bedridden while in a refugee camp and could not have committed the atrocities with which he is accused. Kandy said his father speaks little English and probably misunderstood what was being asked during the U.S. immigration proceedings.
His family contends the Rwandan government accused Kobagaya of genocide in retaliation for testifying on behalf of Bazaramba in the Finnish proceedings.