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How Switzerland let an alleged mastermind of the genocide in Rwanda slip away

Felicien Kabuga, The Hague, November 2020
Lawyers for Kabuga, seen here at his initial appearance before the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals in The Hague, successfully argued he was unfit to stand trial due to dementia. UN-MICT/ICTY

In 1994 Switzerland failed to arrest the man known as the “financier” of the genocide in Rwanda while he was on Swiss soil. As Bern begins work on a report revisiting this episode, SWI swissinfo.ch looks at the case of Félicien Kabuga and its reverberating consequences 30 years later.

Félicien Kabuga spent 25 years on the run. For much of that time, he had a $5 million (CHF4.5 million) bounty on his head, put upExternal link by the United States after international prosecutors accused him of helping to instigate the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi ethnic group.

By the time he was nabbed in France in 2020, Kabuga was well into his eighties. Last year judges at The Hague deemed him unfit to stand trial on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity, thereby ending a long-anticipated legal process against him.

But Kabuga’s story could have taken a different turn. In July 1994, as the genocide was coming to an end, Kabuga entered Switzerland on a visa. Four weeks later the Swiss expelled him to Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo, for reasons that remain unclear. He then vanished.

“One reason why Kabuga was able to evade justice for so long is Switzerland,” says Green Party parliamentarian Christine Badertscher. “Switzerland would very probably have had the opportunity to arrest him in 1994.”

Felicien Kabuga, Rwanda genocide, wanted men poster
During his quarter century on the run, Kabuga was rumoured to have been sighted in Germany, Kenya and Zaire, among other places. UN-MICT/ICTY

The Swiss are now set to revisit the affair. In February, parliament approved Badertscher’s request for the government to do a detailed historical analysis clarifying Switzerland’s role in the case. It has two years to produce this report.

Distributing machetes and disseminating propaganda

In the early 1990s, Kabuga was a rich, well-connected member of the Hutu majority ethnic group in Rwanda. Part of the inner circle of President Juvénal Habyarimana – also a Hutu – through the marriage of two of his daughters to Habyarimana’s sons, Kabuga wielded political power without having any official government role, says César Murangira, president of the genocide victims’ organisation Ibuka Suisse.

The killings began on April 7, 1994, a day after Habyarimana was murdered. Blaming the minority Tutsi for his death, Hutu extremists in the political and military apparatus orchestrated deadly attacks against the Tutsi. Kabuga was one of these extremists, the UN International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) alleged in indictmentsExternal link issued in 1998 and 2011.

“He’s been called the ‘financier’ of the genocide,” says Murangira. “He was part of the group of people who planned and gave the militia the material and ideological means to execute the genocide.”

In April 1994, Kabuga helped to establish the National Defence Fund (FDN), used to purchase weapons and ammunition for the Interahamwe, the youth militia of the Rwandan ruling party that participated in the killings. As chairman of the FDN committee, Kabuga raised donations multiple times for the fund.

Through his company Kabuga ETS, he also imported machetes and distributed them to the Interahamwe to commit atrocities in Gisenyi, western Rwanda, and provided uniforms and vehicles to transport weapons and the militia to killing sites.

The ICTR alleged Kabuga was involved in propaganda as well. At the notorious radio station RTLM (Radio-Télévision Libre des Milles Collines), which he co-founded in 1993, Kabuga and his associates agreed to disseminate anti-Tutsi messages with the ultimate aim of wiping them out in Rwanda. Many historians say that by inciting hatred and sometimes even naming targeted individuals, the station’s broadcasts helped to mobilise ordinary Hutu citizens against the Tutsi.

Ferdinand Nahimana, left, founding Director of radio station RTLM and Hassan Ngeze, former editor in chief of Kangura newspaper in Rwanda
Ferdinand Nahimana (left) was one of Kabuga’s associates at RTLM and served as director of the radio station. In 2003, he was convicted of genocide (later overturned on appeal) and incitement to commit genocide by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. KEYSTONE

Short-lived escape to Switzerland

On June 6, 1994, in the midst of the genocide, Kabuga applied for visas at the Swiss embassy in Kinshasa, neighbouring Zaire, for himself, his wife and seven children. These were issued three days later. The foreign ministry, the Swiss government would later revealExternal link in parliament, only “realised who Kabuga was” on June 14, at which point the authorities tried to have his visa cancelled. But by then Kabuga had already pocketed the documents and was back in Rwanda.

The next day the foreign ministry instructed the immigration office to prevent Kabuga from entering Switzerland. But an entry ban was never implemented. On July 22, as more than 800,000 people in Rwanda lay dead from the killings, the family entered Switzerland.

Two weeks after their arrival, a lawsuit for genocide was filed in Paris against Kabuga. The next day Kabuga applied for asylum in Switzerland.

It was at this point that the justice and foreign ministries reportedly became aware of his presence in Switzerland. The justice department quickly ordered Kabuga and his family to board a plane for Kinshasa at Geneva Airport. The clan departed on August 18, leaving Swiss taxpayers with many unanswered questions, along with a billExternal link for CHF21,302 ($23,500) – the cost of airline tickets they had refused to pay and which the authorities covered in order to ensure their swift departure.

Official reasons for a non-arrest

Why Kabuga was never arrested is a central question for the upcoming historical analysis. Until now the Swiss government has provided only partial answersExternal link to parliament. For one, the legal context was different in 1994. Back then, the only way to try someone accused of breaching the Geneva Conventions governing armed conflict was under the military penal code.

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For this, the government needed a “concrete presumption that a reprehensible act had been committed”. But, although Kabuga was on a list of “undesirable persons” established in June 1994 and the government knew about his stake in RTLM and the nature of the station’s broadcasts, the government argued it did not have indications back in summer 1994 that Kabuga had “personally violated” the Geneva Conventions.

What’s more, the foreign ministry signalled it wanted to study the legal possibilities for an arrest only on August 17, one day before Kabuga was deported – too late, in other words.

Switzerland has successfully apprehended a few high-profile perpetrators of the 1994 genocide. Among them, in 1999, the military court convicted Fulgence Niyonteze, a Rwandan mayor, of murder, incitement to murder and war crimes committed during the genocide, under the military penal code. This was the first Rwandan case heard by a foreign tribunal to end in a conviction. His 14-year prison sentence was upheld by the military court of cassation in 2001.

Tea factory director Alfred Musema, accusedExternal link of participating in several attacks against the Tutsi during the genocide, fled Rwanda in July 1994 and claimed asylum in Switzerland. The Swiss arrested him in February 1995 and began criminal proceedings. A year later, following a request from the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), he was transferred to Arusha, Tanzania, to face charges before the ICTR. In 2000 he was convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity and sentenced to life in prison.

The Swiss government, though, has been accused of failing to arrest, charge or extradite other Rwandans wanted in connection with the genocide. In addition to Félicien Kabuga, there is Gaspard Ruhumuliza, a former environment minister. He claimedExternal link asylum in Switzerland in August 1994 but was unsuccessful because of suspicions he had committed war crimes and crimes against humanity. Switzerland opened a criminal investigation but closed the case in May 2005. In 2009, it refusedExternal link an extradition request from Rwanda, citing a lack of guarantee his human rights would be respected.

Colonel Pierre Célestin Rwagafilita, said to have been a member of President Habyarimana’s inner circle, entered Switzerland in June 1994 on a visa. Rwagafilita had allegedly requestedExternal link arms from a French army general to “liquidate” the Tutsi. Interpol issued a warrant for his arrest in July 1995, but he had reportedly already left Switzerland. He was never tried and is thoughtExternal link to no longer be alive.

Switzerland added genocide to its penal code in 2000, and crimes against humanity in 2011; it ratified the convention for the International Criminal Court in 2001. These legal changes, which facilitate Switzerland’s ability to prosecute those who have committed serious crimes abroad, came partly as a result of the Kabuga case, Badertscher says.

Close Rwandan-Swiss ties under scrutiny

After his departure, Kabuga’s very presence in Switzerland also became a source of debate. A report commissioned by the justice ministry in the mid-1990s – the only official investigation into the Kabuga affair to date and one which focused solely on the visa issue – pointed to administrative errors: the immigration office had failed to examine his visa application thoroughly or execute an entry ban.

The then-head of the immigration office, Alexandre Hunziker, took the fall. In December 1994, he was sent into early retirement, aged 59, “for health reasons”. Hunziker, it is said, personally issued the visa to Kabuga and did not pass on the entry ban to the border police. He was friendly with Kabuga’s son-in-law, Fabien Singaye, who worked at the Rwandan embassy in Bern, and had dined with him several times. Singaye was expelledExternal link in August 1994 for illegal espionage.

That Kabuga chose Switzerland for his escape is no surprise. The country nurtured close ties with Rwanda, a priority state for Swiss development cooperation since the 1960s. This relationship came under scrutiny after the genocide: a 1996 report commissioned by the foreign ministry concluded the Swiss development agency had taken no political action to ease escalating tensions prior to April 1994.

“Having Kabuga here and really pursuing his case maybe would have led to an extensive discussion about Switzerland’s role in Rwanda,” says historian Thanushiyah Korn of the University of Basel. But until the government lifts the veil on its past actions, this is all speculation, adds Korn, who is currently examining the actions of international donors in the build-up to the genocide.

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A disappointment 30 years in the making

Kabuga is among many alleged perpetrators of the genocide with international arrest warrants to their names who have managed to escape the wheels of justice, says Murangira – and some are still on the run. For victims, the impact of Kabuga disappearing for so long, only to be deemed unfit to stand trial, is profound.

“It’s a disappointment that’s lasted 30 years, because international justice has failed completely,” says Murangira, himself a survivor of the genocide. “Time passing does not favour the victim. Many survivors and witnesses are now dead.”

In Bern, Badertscher hopes the historical analysis will offer some “symbolic reparation” for Switzerland’s handling of the Kabuga affair.

“What happened can no longer be undone,” she says. “But a historical reappraisal can help to clarify Switzerland’s role – a coming-to-terms with what exactly happened so we can better understand it.”

Edited by Virginie Mangin

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