Félicien Kabuga, one of the last key suspects in the Rwandan genocide, lost an appeal on Wednesday to be released under court supervision. French judges have put off a decision on whether to transfer him to an international court until 3 June.
Dressed in slippers, jeans and a purple shirt, Felicien Kabuga appeared before a Paris Court of Appeal on Wednesday, in a wheelchair and clad in a face mask.
One of Rwanda's most notorious fugitives, he listened impassively as the presiding judge read out the seven criminal counts against him, including genocide and incitement to commit genocide against Rwanda's Tutsi minority.
"Those are all lies," Kabuga said finally through an interpreter. "I would not have killed my customers. They are lies."
Kabuga was in court to challenge an extradition bid to transfer him to an international court. But French judges refused to release the 84-year-old on bail, despite his lawyer's argument that he is in poor health, insisting that he was a "flight risk".
Kabuga was arrested earlier this month in a Paris suburb after 25 years on the run.
"The legal fight is just beginning," says Phil Clark, a lecturer at SOAS University in London and author of the book "Distant Justice."
The UN's International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), which issued an international arrest warrant for Kabuga in 1997 "has a very strong claim over this case," Clark told RFI.
The tribunal, which closed in 2015 after indicting over 90 genocide suspects, including Kabuga, has been replaced by the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals at The Hague.
Most experts believe that Kabuga will be tried in the Netherlands, but Clark says a legal battle with Rwanda cannot be ruled out.
"There's a real momentum within Rwanda to see Kabuga prosecuted in Kigali, rather than in some distant UN courtroom and possibly in The Hague," he tells RFI.
"There's a sense that justice needs to be seen as intimately as possible, in many ways it would be like the prosecution of Eichmann in Jerusalem," he said, referring to the trial of the notorious Nazi after World War II..
Rwanda's High Court Chamber for International Crimes will next week rule in the case of genocide suspect Ladislas Ntaganzwa, who was transferred from the UN's court to Rwanda, in what is expected to be a litmus test of Kigali's capacity to prosecute high profile suspects.
"Many legal authorities in Rwanda are saying 'You should do with Kabuga what you've been doing with all of these other cases. You should transfer him into our jurisdiction and have a prosecution of Kabuga in Kigali," explains Clark.
However, other observers reckon that the UN tribunal's chief prosecutor Serge Brammertz, hailed for his role in Kabuga's arrest, will be reluctant to let go of the ICTR's last remaining "big fish."
Evading the law
Clark points out that a team of 17 Rwandan experts also played a key role in tracking down the fugitive suspect.
"They followed his mobile phone and travel records to locate his children and where his children were traveling to and it was because of their hard work that Kabuga was then located in Paris," he says.
Kabuga was arrested from a flat in the suburb of Asnieres-Sur-Seine on 16 May where he was living under a false name. His arrest has raised questions about how he managed to evade the law for over 25 years.
Once one of Rwanda's richest men, Kabuga "benefitted from a lot of protection and complicity," says Patrick Baudouin, a lawyer and honorary president of the International Federation of Human Rights.
At various times Kabuga lived in Switzerland, Germany, Belgium, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Kenya, as well as France, police say, although it is unclear when he arrived in Paris.
"We're within our right to question why he wasn't arrested sooner. I think it has a lot to do with French policy at the time, which favoured and protected the government of Juvénal Habyarimana and his entourage," Baudouin told RFI.
🇷🇼#Rwanda #Genocide: Comment Félicien #Kabuga, un des criminels les plus recherchés au monde, a-t-il pu venir se cacher en France ?
La FIDH et la @LDH_Fr appellent les autorités françaises à ouvrir une enquête pour que des réponses puissent être apportées.https://t.co/rnjX3tY4fG
- FIDH (@fidh_fr) May 18, 2020
The International Federation of Human Rights has urged the French government to launch an inquiry into why Kabuga was able evade the law in France for so long.
Politically well-connected, Kabuga made his millions out of the tea and coffee industry in Rwanda.
He is alleged to have used his wealth and influence to funnel money to militia groups that massacred at least 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus during the course of 100 days in 1994.
He is accused of supplying the militias weapons, including several hundred thousand machetes imported from China.
The indictment against him also alleges that the radio station he partly owned, Radio-Television Mille Collines, incited the killings of the Tutsis whom it referred to as "cockroaches," and revealed where they could be found.
Looking for justice
Kabuga's lawyers have hit out at the charges, insisting their client cannot be "presented as one of the main instigators of the genocide when no trial has taken place."
Some activists took to Twitter to argue that Kabuga should be treated as innocent until proven guilty.
COMMUNIQUÉ DE PRESSE DE LA DÉFENSE DE F. #Kabuga
"Kabuga a droit au respect de la présomption d'innocence, à la dignité de sa personne et à son image[...]Au nom de ces principes, il saisira en référé le Trib. jud. Paris de ces atteintes à l'encontre de ses droits fondamentaux." pic.twitter.com/AaDc3vzIJ8
- Marius Komeza (@marikomz) May 19, 2020
Nonetheless, for lawyer Patrick Baudouin, Kabuga's arrest is an important step towards justice.
"The charges against him are very severe. Even if we can't call him guilty until he's been prosecuted, the fact that someone of his ranking is at last being held accountable, will offer some relief to victims," he said.
After Wednesday's hearing, the Paris appeal court will have 15 days to deliver its ruling, which Kabuga can still appeal.