Jurors were offered conflicting views Friday of the Kansas man accused of participating in the 1994 Rwandan genocide as both sides outlined their cases at his trial.
Prosecutors in their opening statements painted Lazare Kobagaya as a leader and organizer who ordered brutal ethnic killings and instructed followers on which of his neighbors' houses to burn, while the defense described him as a peaceful, God-fearing man who protected others from the violence that had engulfed the region.
Which portrayal prevails will be determined in the next 10 weeks during Kobagaya's trial in a federal courtroom in Wichita. The 84-year-old Topeka man is charged with unlawfully obtaining U.S. citizenship in 2006 and with fraud and misuse of an alien registration card in a case prosecutors have said is the first in the United States requiring proof of genocide.
"The only reason he was able to come here is because he lied about his actions in Rwanda," prosecutor Christina Giffin said in her opening statement. "Those lies are the center of these charges here."
An estimated 500,000 to 800,000 people were killed in Rwanda between April and July 1994. Most of the dead belonged to an ethnic group known as the Tutsi, while most of the killings were carried out by members of an ethnic group known as the Hutu. The events related to the charges allegedly occurred in a rural area known as Birambo, where Kobagaya and his family lived at the time of the genocide.
Defense lawyers, in their opening statement, sought to cast doubt on the credibility of admitted killers upon whom the prosecution has built its case. Attorney Melanie Morgan said that her client, a Hutu born in neighboring Burundi, married a Tutsi woman who would be his companion for 57 years and the mother of his 11 children until her death six years ago.
Morgan told jurors Kobagaya protected two Tutsi women during the genocide, and she recounted how he never forgot what had happened in his beloved Burundi even when he was more than 8,000 miles away from his homeland. Kobagaya and one of his sons helped set up an orphanage in Burundi for Hutu and Tutsi children whose parents were killed during the violence that engulfed both African countries.
"While the evidence in this case will be of desperation, corruption and revenge, it is also a case of love, hope and perseverance," Morgan said in her opening statement for the defense.
If convicted, Kobagaya faces up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000 on each of the charges. But the indictment also seeks to revoke his U.S. citizenship, a move that would subject him to deportation. Family members have said they fear that could lead to his death.
Mark Larkin, an agent with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement, testified that the case is being prosecuted as an immigration case because the time limit had already passed under U.S. law for it to be a genocide case.
More than 50 witnesses from five countries are expected to testify in the case.
Valens Murindangabo, who lived in the same Rwandan village as Kobagaya during the genocide, took the stand Friday to recount through an interpreter the events of April 15, 1994 when a mob of about 100 Hutu residents burned the houses of local Tutsis. He identified Kobagaya in the courtroom as the man who told the crowd that "what makes people fear is to burn their houses so they won't come back."
Murindangabo, who admitted he participated in the arson, marked on a map what had been the location of about a dozen of those houses, and testified Kobagaya's job was to supervise the burning to ensure the houses were completely destroyed. He described how the mob would put eucalyptus branches inside the houses so their grass roofs would burn and set fire to the walls outside.
Prosecutors told jurors Kobagaya was 67 at the time of the genocide and a wealthy man by Rwandan standards. The government contends he used that influence to lead others in his small community.
According to indictment, Kobagaya on April 16, 1994, also ordered a man to participate in the killing of Tutsis. When the man refused, Kobagaya allegedly stabbed him in the leg with a Ruhoga, a traditional Hutu weapon that consists of a cane in which a knife is concealed. The man then followed the orders and killed another man he did not know at a place called Ruhuka, according to prosecutors.
Prosecutors brought into the courtroom a Ruhoga to demonstrate the weapon to jurors, and Murindangabo used it to describe the similar one that Kobagaya had carried at the time.
Kobagaya is also accused of participating in attacks that occurred between April 16 and 19, 1994, against Tutsis who had fled to Mount Nyakizu to escape the genocide. Hundreds were killed in those attacks.
Prosecutors also charged Kobagaya with ordering a Hutu man in May 1994 to kill a Tutsi man who had been found hiding and brought to Birambo. Kobagaya is accused of threatening to kill the Hutu's wife if the man did not kill the Tutsi as ordered.
The defense contends Kobagaya is innocent of those allegations, noting he had difficulty even walking at the time and suffered from diabetes.
The government contends Kobagaya worked with Francois Bazaramba, a former Rwandan pastor who was sentenced last year to life imprisonment by a Finnish court for committing genocide against the Tutsi minority in 1994.
But the defense argued that for years after the genocide, Kobagaya was never accused of participating in the atrocities until he gave a deposition on behalf of Bazaramba in the Finnish proceedings that brought him to the attention of U.S. authorities.