WASHINGTON (JTA) — For the first time, the U.S. government will attempt to prove genocide in a federal court.
Lazare Kobagaya was charged last week with illegally obtaining U.S. citizenship by covering up his involvement in the Rwandan genocide. In making their case, Justice Department prosecutors will have to show that the 82-year-old Kansas man participated in the massacre of Tutsi by Hutus.
Human rights experts called it an important moment in ensuring that perpetrators of genocide would not be able to live out their lives in freedom.
“It’s a significant step,” said David Crane, a professor at the Syracuse University College of Law and the founding chief prosecutor for the Special Court for Sierra Leone, the international war crimes tribunal in West Africa that indicted former Liberian President Charles Taylor. “It’s really important to see the United States doing this kind of work.”
The Justice Department’s Office of Special Investigations, which for the past 30 years has prosecuted Nazi war criminals living in the United States, will handle the case.
A U.S. official with knowledge of the case, who asked not be identified, explained that while previous OSI cases have dealt with those who had participated in the genocide of Jews during the Holocaust, the law that created the office only required proof that a U.S. citizen or resident had participated in “perpetrating acts of persecution on behalf of Nazi Germany” or its allies from 1933 to 1945.
This case, said the official, is the first OSI prosecution since the office’s responsibilities were expanded in 2004 to revoke the citizenship of any naturalized citizen who participated in genocide abroad. (A 2007 federal statute allows for the prosecution of anyone residing in the United States on charges of genocide, but the law is not retroactive and thus cannot be used in this case.)
The indictment, which was handed up in January and unsealed last week, cites five separate incidents in which Kobagaya, of Topeka, either allegedly participated in the killing of Tutsi or directed others to do so. For instance, the indictment states that on April 15, 1994, Kobagaya at a marketplace called Birambo “directed a gathering of Hutu to commit arson as part of the genocide against the Tutsi,” making “derogatory remarks” and directing “the Hutu who were present to burn the houses of local Tutsi” — orders, the indictment notes, that were carried out.
The next day, the indictment states, Kobagaya ordered “Individual A” to participate in killing Tutsi. Individual A refused and Kobagaya stabbed him in the leg. In response, Individual A murdered an “unknown individual.”
Then, from April 16 to 19 of the same year, Kobagaya allegedly took part in multiple attacks against hundreds of Tutsi who had fled to escape the genocide. The defendant “mobilized attackers and ordered and coerced them to continue their participation of those Tutsi,” the indictment states, with hundreds eventually being murdered.
Asked when he was applying for citizenship and an alien registration card in 1997 whether he had committed "a crime for which he had not been arrested," Kobagaya did not disclose any of this information, the indictment says.
Kobagaya’s family says he is innocent of the charges and was too old and ill to have committed the crimes with which he is charged, according to The Associated Press.
Following Kobagaya’s first appearance in a U.S. District Court in Wichita on April 24, during which he did not file a plea, one of his sons said his father was in Rwanda at the time alleged, but he was actually a refugee from Burundi. His family also charged that the Rwandan government was retaliating against Kobagaya, who was due back in court Wednesday, for giving a statement in support of another Rwandan genocide suspect under investigation in Finland.
Crane cautioned that genocide is a “difficult charge to prove.” One must prove a “specific intent” of terminating an entire group of people, and some kind of “written directions” are usually necessary, the Syracuse professor said.
That can get complicated, said Pamela Merchant, who as executive director of the San Francisco-based Center for Justice and Accountability brings civil suits against human rights violators living in the United States. She noted that sometimes so many other political opponents have been killed, it’s hard to demonstrate that a specific group was the actual target.
“It seems easy, but sometimes the evidence doesn’t quite get you there,” Crane said.
That standard of proof is a reason, he said, why the United States has declared the Darfur situation a genocide but the international community has yet to follow suit.
Just bringing the case is “enormously significant,” said Michael Abramowitz, director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Committee on Conscience.
Abramowitz returned earlier this month from a 15th anniversary commemoration of the Rwandan genocide, where he met with survivors and attended memorials.
“It says there’s no statute of limitations” for genocide,” Abramowitz said. “It’s never too late to try to hold people accountable for genocidal actions in the not-so-distant past.”