Archive for Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Documents show high costs for prosecution of Burundi-born Topeka resident suspected of participating in Rwandan genocide

February 7, 2012


— The prosecution of a Burundian immigrant suspected of participating in the 1994 Rwandan genocide tied up manpower and cost money — so much that Kansas jurors pressed the federal judge to find out how much the government had spent on an immigration case against the 84-year-old defendant.

Nearly six months after the case against Lazare Kobagaya was dismissed, the Justice Department released a partial accounting of its price tag to The Associated Press in response to a Freedom of Information Act request seeking its costs.

Kobagaya, now a U.S. citizen living in Topeka, was charged with visa fraud and lying to obtain U.S. citizenship. Jurors in May found Kobagaya lied on immigration forms about his whereabouts at the time of the 1994 genocide but said the government did not prove he took part in the atrocities. They deadlocked on the second count related to lying on his citizenship application.

A judge in late August tossed all of the charges, including the visa fraud conviction, at the request of prosecutors.

A one-page summary of charges obtained by AP offers just a glimpse of government spending for translators, travel, meals, and hotel costs, witness fees and transcription expenses totaling $397,600. The department withheld nine pages, claiming exemptions for "unwarranted invasion of personal privacy."

Defense costs were more than $350,000. Kobagaya had court-appointed attorneys because he couldn't afford his own defense team, so U.S. taxpayers also paid those costs.

U.S. District Judge Monti Belot had told jurors after the trial that the government spent at least $1 million dollars to prosecute Kobagaya.

The Justice Department said Tuesday that it makes its decisions on whether to prosecute based on the "facts and circumstances presented" and guided by the Principles of Federal Prosecution policy. Advanced age can sometimes be a relevant factor on whether to prosecute a case.

"Many other factors, too, are properly considered in making that determination — including the seriousness of the defendant's conduct," Justice spokeswoman Alisa Finelli said in an email. "In the Kobagaya case, we reviewed the facts and evidence and determined that it warranted prosecution."

The indictment's dismissal was an ignominious finale to a costly prosecution that the government once touted as the first in the nation requiring proof of genocide. At least 500,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed during the four-month wave of violence in Rwanda.

"It is sad that this kind of money was spent in pursuit of an innocent man but thank god the court provided us sufficient resources to fight back," defense attorney Kurt Kerns said in an email.

In seeking the case's dismissal, prosecutors told the court they had found a potential issue with the jury instructions and said they inadvertently failed to disclose information that might have bolstered Kobagaya's defense. Prosecutors cited the "substantial resources" and the jury's verdict in deciding not to retry the case.

"The expenditure of resources is, of course, one of several factors we consider when determining whether to retry any case," Finelli said Tuesday.

Kobagaya, who speaks an African dialect known as Kirundi, required translators for the five-week federal trial as well as for all hearings, depositions and other meetings. The Justice figures show those interpreter fees alone totaled $157,363.

Government and defense attorneys traveled to Rwanda with their investigators, translators and a court reporter to take depositions and to Kansas for the trial. The cost of travel, hotel and meals for the Washington, D.C.-based prosecutors totaled $112,995. Travel by non-Justice personnel added on an additional $23,878.

At least 45 foreign witnesses for both the prosecution and defense were brought to the U.S., although not all testified. Each foreign witness was paid $96 a day over more than six weeks they remained in the U.S., along with payments while they were meeting with investigators in Rwanda. Witness fees paid out totaled $9,551.

Expert witnesses also testified about the Rwandan genocide. Expert witnesses cost an additional $86,951.

In addition, the court reporter provided daily transcripts of court proceedings to attorneys throughout the trial. Ring up an additional $6,859 in transcription expenses.

The Justice Department did not provide as requested an accounting of hotel costs incurred by witnesses. At least 20 agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement were brought in to guard the witnesses, many of them admitted killers who wore ankle bracelets while they were in the United States to testify.

Taxpayers also picked up the defense tab. Kobagaya's two court-appointed attorneys, Kerns and Olathe attorney Melanie Morgan, spent two years investigating the allegations after the government filed an indictment in January 2009. Their investigation took them to Rwanda, Burundi, Congo, South Africa, Malawi, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Tanzania, Finland and Belgium. The defense team was paid $125 an hour, with defense costs and attorney fees totaling more than $350,000, Kerns said.

Less clear are the resources expended by at least four prosecutors from the Justice Department's human rights enforcement program and numerous agents from other agencies to investigate and try the case.

"The Department will continue to vigorously investigate and prosecute cases against alleged human rights violators," Finelli said. "These cases often are difficult and resource intensive, but they are a critical component of the Department's human rights enforcement program."


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