Witness: Inmates in Rwandan jails told to accuse others of genocide
WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — Jurors in the trial of a Kansas man accused of participating in the 1994 Rwandan genocide got a glimpse Tuesday of inhumane prison conditions in that African country as defense attorneys sought to bolster their argument that prisoners were coerced into confessing and accusing others of atrocities to gain their own freedom.
A federal jury must decide whether Lazare Kobagaya, 84, lied to U.S. immigration authorities in a case prosecutors have said is the first in this country requiring proof of genocide. The government is seeking to revoke Kobagaya’s U.S. citizenship for allegedly lying to immigration authorities about his involvement in the genocide.
Prosecutors have portrayed Kobagaya as an influential leader who ordered killings and arsons in a region known as Nyakizu Commune, where the village of Birambo was located. Kobagaya, now living in Topeka, was charged two years ago with unlawfully obtaining U.S. citizenship in 2006 and with fraud and misuse of an alien registration card.
Key to prosecutors’ case is the testimony of self-confessed Rwandan killers who have fingered Kobagaya, a Hutu born in Burundi. In a move meant to raise doubts about the credibility of such witnesses, defense attorneys brought in a former prisoner who said he falsely accused others to survive in prison and win his release.
Although Felicien Hakizimana never accused Kobagaya of any wrongdoing, his testimony allowed the defense to present evidence of harsh prison conditions.
Hakizimana said Rwandan prisons were so crowded that inmates did not have space to sit down. He told of daily beatings to force prisoners to confess to genocide and showed jurors a scar on his leg he claimed was made during one such beating. He also described torture sessions that left prisoners unconscious. Food was scarce and medical care was nonexistent, he said.
He said those prisoners who confessed to participating in the genocide were put in better cells, given jobs and allowed family visits. Also, he said, inmates had to confess to genocide to earn their release.
Hakizimana, a former Nyakizu resident who knew the Kobagaya family, told jurors that after his confession, he was given a position as vice president of a kind of community court within the prison walls. Hakizimana said an organization of Tutsi survivors would come to the prison and hand him and others lists of people — usually those who were wealthy — whom they wanted accused.
“They made it clear after we confessed to what we said, that we would have to accuse a person outside,” Hakizimana said through an interpreter.
Defense attorneys also used Hakizimana to demonstrate that as a Burundi refugee, Kobagaya could not have held a leadership position in his village.
“He didn’t have any position because as a refugee he was not allowed to be a leader in the country,” Hakizimana testified.
Hakizimana also said an attack at Mount Nyakizu, where thousands of Tutsis had sought refuge, was led by young men and soldiers and that he did not see Kobagaya among them.
Under cross examination, Hakizimana acknowledged looting at least three Tutsi homes, stealing crops and cows and joining night patrols seeking to rout out Tutsis during the genocide. Hakizimana at the time of the genocide was a student on vacation at the family home in Nyakizu.
Hakizimana, who now lives in Zambia, also acknowledged that he fled Rwanda before his own trial on genocide charges.
Earlier in the day, a professor who has studied the 1994 genocide, testified that the two ethnic groups involved suffered almost equal numbers of deaths.
Loyola professor Brian Endless told jurors that almost as many Hutus were killed as Tutsis. He said about 200,000 Hutus participated in the genocide, while more than 1 million refugees fled Rwanda in July 1994.