|"Lazare Kobagaya, 84, is on trial in Federal District Court, accused of lying about his activities in Rwanda 17 years ago." (Jeff Tuttle/Associated Press)|
In Kansas Courtroom, Echoes of Rwanda Genocide
By James C. McKinley Jr.
The New York Times, May 8, 2011
"The faces in the jury box are a cross-section of southern Kansas. The judge has a white beard, wears a bow tie and speaks in the straightforward language of the Great Plains. One defense lawyer favors cowboy boots and sometimes dons bolo ties. Lazare Kobagaya, 84, is on trial in Federal District Court, accused of lying about his activities in Rwanda 17 years ago. But they are listening to testimony about a place and time in a village half a world away. On the stand, a diminutive Rwandan man with gold-rimmed glasses talks in his native language about how he participated in the murder of his neighbors during the ethnic massacres in Rwanda 17 years ago. The witness, Valens Murindangabo, is asked about a moment on April 17, 1994, when two Tutsi teenagers were captured by Hutu men in some woods. He glances at the defendant, Lazare Kobagaya, an octogenarian with a cane, whose gray head can barely be seen above the back of his chair. 'Kobagaya said, "Wipe them out, kill them,"' Mr. Murindangabo testifies. Then he says one of the men hacked the boys to death with a machete near a watering hole while Mr. Kobagaya watched from a few yards away. The defendant puts his palm to his forehead and shakes his head sadly. He dabs tears from his eyes with a handkerchief. With this testimony, and more to come over the next two months, a federal court jury will hear a detailed account of how the 1994 genocide in Rwanda was carried out in a single village near the mountainous African country’s southern border with Burundi. The jurors have been asked to decide whether Mr. Kobagaya, a former teacher and mill owner born in Burundi, incited local Hutu farmers to turn on their Tutsi neighbors in the turbulent days of April 1994. The Hutu president had died in a plane wreck, and Hutu hard-liners in the government began a genocide against Tutsi civilians, killing as many as 800,000, while a Tutsi rebel army renewed its offensive. The defense has argued that Mr. Kobagaya never participated in the mass killings but has been falsely accused by various villagers who did take part and received reduced sentences in Rwandan prisons for pointing the finger at him and others. 'What they found in the course of their investigation was a group of killers willing to make accusations,' Melanie Morgan, a defense lawyer, said in opening statements. Mr. Kobagaya, who is 84, is not being charged with genocide but with lying to immigration officials about his involvement to obtain American citizenship in 2006. Prosecutors say that he claimed on immigration forms that he lived in Burundi in 1994 and that he denied ever committing a crime. [...]"