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The 26-year-long search for Africa’s most wanted man

How did Félicien Kabuga, accused of organising and financing Rwanda’s genocide, evade capture for so long?

It was January 2003 and US special agent Scott Gallo had not heard from his Kenyan informant for more than 24 hours. He was anxious.

The informant, a 27-year-old journalist turned government fixer named William Munuhe, had approached the US embassy in Nairobi some weeks prior offering information about one of Africa’s most wanted men.

Félicien Kabuga, a Rwandan businessman accused of organising, financing and directing the Rwandan genocide nine years earlier, was living in Kenya, protected by certain members of the government, the informant said. Not only had he seen the fugitive, but he had been working for him, helping a small group of Kenyan security officials move him from safe house to safe house.

In the days that followed, Munuhe was interviewed by Gallo and took a lie-detector test, before later proposing he could lure Kabuga, then nearing 70, to his home in return for a piece of a $5 million US government reward. He had promised to call Gallo once the fugitive was with him, but almost two days had passed and now the US special agent was outside the small two-storey apartment building and everything was quiet.

A Kenyan police officer climbed up the drainpipe, over a low black railing, on to a balcony and forced open a blue door on the first floor. The officer came back down the stairs and let Gallo and his team in. “As you walked in, there in the living room, on a coffee table, were all these photographs of him and his girlfriend, his family, almost like a shrine, like he was saying goodbye,” remembers Gallo.

As the group climbed the stairs, a police officer went ahead and opened the door to a bedroom. On the bed, lying on his back, was Munuhe. “Blood had drained through his body, through the mattress, on to the floor,” Gallo says. “There was so much blood that it had already started to pool all the way out to the door.” Munuhe’s forearms and calves were swollen and his ankles and wrists were bruised, suggesting that he had been tied down, Gallo adds.

The Kenyan coroner ruled that Munuhe had died from asphyxiation, citing the presence of a small charcoal burner in the room. The coroner, says Gallo, ignored the pools of blood the special agent had stepped over as he entered, the hole in one of Munuhe’s temples and the missing fragment of skull — about the size of a US quarter — that American officials noticed during the autopsy.

Munuhe had died by suicide, Kenyan officials said, but the US embassy had a different view. “It was an execution,” says Johnnie Carson, US ambassador to Kenya at the time of the operation. “Gas didn’t kill him. He had been assassinated.” And Kabuga, on the run since his indictment by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) in 1997, was nowhere to be seen.

How could an ageing Rwandan businessman in poor health continue to evade a tribunal backed by the vast resources of the UN? Who was protecting him? How long had he been in Kenya and where had he gone next? Kabuga’s story is a cautionary tale of the world’s pursuit of suspected war criminals and the power and weakness of international justice.

Seventeen years later, after an astonishing swoop on Kabuga in a quiet Paris suburb in May — the result of co-operation between law enforcement agencies from at least nine countries — answers to those questions are finally starting to arrive.

By the time Kabuga was arrested, Interpol had recorded more than two dozen aliases for him and identified multiple passports. When he was detained in Paris, he was using a passport from the Democratic Republic of Congo, according to the French police. When he received medical treatment in Frankfurt, Germany, 13 years earlier, he used Tanzanian papers.

The passport documents were authentic, investigators said, demonstrating how easy it remained for wealthy criminals to procure official identities in certain countries. The hunt had also been dogged, at different times, by the reluctance of several African governments, including Kenya, to assist the ICTR in tracing individuals, assets and identities, they said. (The investigators declined to be identified because they were criticising the conduct of another country.)

Now 85 years old, Kabuga has denied all charges against him. He was frail when he arrived in court in France after his capture and spoke through an interpreter. Sometimes he appeared to lose his train of thought. But a DNA match confirmed it was the same man that UN prosecutors allege helped fund, plan and orchestrate the killing of 800,000 ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus in 100 blood-soaked days in 1994. The same man that went on to evade detention for more than two decades, slipping across international borders again and again.

“The arrest of Kabuga demonstrates that we can succeed when we have the international community’s support,” says Aimable Havugiyaremye, the head of Rwanda’s National Public Prosecution Authority, who as a 21-year-old soldier was a member of the rebel Tutsi army that helped to end the killing in 1994. “It is a reminder for all those who are responsible . . . that even after 26 years they can be brought to account.”

Kabuga was born in a province in northern Rwanda, close to the Ugandan border. From humble beginnings hawking cigarettes and second-hand clothing, he built a thriving business selling spices, salt, sugar and tea before moving south to the capital, Kigali. By the time Major General Juvénal Habyarimana seized power in a coup in 1973, Kabuga’s reputation as a businessman had grown and he later cemented his position at the top of Rwanda’s political and commercial elite through the marriage of one of his daughters to one of Habyarimana’s sons.

Like Habyarimana, Kabuga is a member of the Hutu ethnic group that today represents about 84 per cent of the country and controlled political power after independence from Belgium in 1962 at the expense of the Tutsi minority. The terms Hutu and Tutsi had existed in the sophisticated Rwandan kingdom that predated colonial rule but were used to denote lineage rather than ethnicity and people could move between groups, for example through marriage.

But in 1935, the year Kabuga was born, the Belgian colonial administration codified the groups, introducing identity cards that described each Rwandan as either a Hutu, a Tutsi or a Twa, a much smaller ethnic minority. The Belgian rulers favoured the Tutsi for positions in the colonial administration, driving a wedge between the two communities. As independence approached, Rwanda’s nascent political scene split along ethnic lines. The first clashes between Hutus and Tutsis broke out in 1959, before a predominantly Hutu government took power in 1962 and hundreds of thousands of Tutsis fled into exile.

Anti-Tutsi discrimination continued for the next three decades, peaking again in the early 1990s after a rebel Tutsi army invaded Rwanda from the north, provoking the first organised killings of Tutsi civilians by Hutus. Into this febrile atmosphere, Félicien Kabuga — by then one of the country’s richest men with assets estimated in the tens of millions of dollars — launched Radio Télévision Libre des Milles Collines (RTLM).

Pitched as the country’s first private radio station and an alternative to the state-run Radio Rwanda, UN prosecutors allege that it was conceived, from the outset, as a vehicle to fan ethnic hatred and exterminate the Tutsi population.

“I am one who strongly believes that RTLM was really key to the width, breadth and depth of the genocide,” says Stephen Rapp, a former chief of prosecutions at the ICTR who successfully prosecuted Kabuga’s RTLM associates, Ferdinand Nahimana and Jean-Bosco Barayagwiza, at the court in 2003. “You wouldn’t have had killings in every town, in every commune, in every village . . . were it not for the air support that RTLM provided to that campaign.”

Not only did RTLM spew anti-Tutsi messages from July 1993 but after Habyarimana’s plane was shot down on April 6 1994 and the mass killing of Tutsis began, it broadcast the location of Tutsi groups and urged Hutus to “find and kill”, according to Kabuga’s indictment.

Liliane Umubyeyi, a Tutsi, was 15 in April 1994. She says she remembers the RTLM broadcasts as if she had heard them yesterday. Tutsis were cockroaches to be feared and despised, RTLM broadcasters repeated in the months leading up to the genocide. “There was a change from the day the RTLM was introduced,” she says. “Hatred intensified to a level when it was uncontrollable.”

When the armed Hutu men came for her family, she says, choking back tears, many of them carried small wireless radios — the portable type that took batteries and were common across Africa before the arrival of the mobile phone.

She was the only one who escaped, to the top of a nearby tree, where she listened with her eyes closed as the armed Hutus hacked her extended family, including her mother, father and younger brother, to death. The RTLM broadcasts urged “no mercy for the Tutsi”, she says.

The impact of the rolling, terrorising radio messages on Umubyeyi and others in hiding was profound. “They did it deliberately,” she says. “Once you have fear, you can’t defend yourself; once you’re scared, you can’t even think of how to escape.”

Kabuga was not just president of RTLM, the indictment says, with “de jure control of all programming, operations and finances”. Among other charges, prosecutors allege that he chaired meetings of the funding group established by Hutu leaders to finance the Interahamwe killing squads; that he used his businesses to import “a record number of machetes” and uniforms used by the Interahamwe; and that his vehicles transported Tutsis to a location where they were killed. “He’s not the only one that played a role . . . but he’s one of the masterminds,” alleges Havugiyaremye, the Rwandan prosecutor general.

Emmanuel Altit, the French international lawyer leading Kabuga’s defence, said his client denies all the allegations. “The burden of proof rests on the prosecutor,” he said, declining to answer, on behalf of Kabuga, other questions about his client’s decades on the run.

Serge Brammertz knows how to catch fugitives. The 58-year-old Belgian prosecutor has chased criminals for three decades. In July 2008, as head of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, Brammertz oversaw the arrest of the Bosnian Serb leader-turned-fugitive Radovan Karadzic, who had committed genocide during the Bosnian war of 1992-95; he was finally caught in Belgrade hiding out as an alternative healer. Later, in 2011, Brammertz arrested another Bosnian leader, the military commander Ratko Mladic, also known as the Butcher of Belgrade, who had been on the run for 16 years.

Brammertz took on the hunt for Kabuga and the other Rwandan fugitives sought by the UN in 2016 when he was appointed chief prosecutor for the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals (IRMCT) — a combined court established by the UN to conclude the outstanding cases from Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia.

By 2015, when the Rwandan tribunal was closed down, it had indicted 93 individuals for their role in the genocide and convicted 62, including some of the most senior members of the former Rwandan regime, pioneering the development of an international criminal justice system. But it had also become the subject of strong criticism for inefficiency, huge expenditure — it spent an estimated $2bn between 1994 and 2014 — and the glacial pace of many of its proceedings.

“I don’t think there’s any jurisdiction anywhere in the world that if you did a comparable assessment of the price and the number of people involved that would say the investment was a good return,” said Tim Gallimore, a spokesperson for the ICTR prosecutor between 2004 and 2008, in 2015.

In the case of Kabuga in particular, many critics ask why he was not found sooner. “If the search had been serious, or if there had been better co-operation, he could have been captured earlier,” says Alain Gauthier, a French citizen who, with his Rwandan-born wife, has helped to track genocide suspects living in France since 2001. “I think everyone was convinced that he would never be found.”

When Brammertz arrived, the UN investigators were working with 83 informants, chasing down reported sightings in dozens of locations around the world, from Kenya to Madagascar, Gabon to the Indian Ocean island-nation of the Comoros. The court’s tracking team was continually on the road, meeting sources in distant cities who claimed to have seen Kabuga or have information about his location. But the work had led nowhere and hard intelligence was scarce.

No one who committed that kind of crime should go unpunished.” – Liliane Umubyeyi, genocide survivor

“The problem is most often you really cannot trust people,” Brammertz says over a video call from The Hague. The failure of the network of informants to deliver accurate intelligence meant that by 2016 much more was known about Kabuga’s first decade on the run than his second.

After the rebel Tutsi army led by Paul Kagame — now Rwanda’s president — marched into Kigali in July 1994 and ended the killing, Kabuga fled along with millions of other Hutus across the border into the Democratic Republic of Congo, then known as Zaire. From Congo, prosecutors say that he travelled to Switzerland with his family, where he was granted a visa and was able to access funds in international bank accounts, before his application for asylum was rejected and he was deported in August that year.

Speaking to reporters in a hotel room in the Congolese capital Kinshasa shortly afterwards, Kabuga — in the last known recording of the fugitive for 26 years — denied any role in the genocide. “We invested in a simple commercial radio,” he said calmly through his daughter, who sat next to him and translated. “We just wanted the radio to be a success.”

From Congo, Kabuga travelled to Kenya, whose president Daniel arap Moi had been close to Habyarimana and where many officials from the former Rwandan regime had fled. With what prosecutors now assume was at least Moi’s tacit support, Kabuga immediately set about rebuilding his commercial interests, establishing an import-export business and acquiring property.

Moi later denied any friendship with Habyarimana or any knowledge of Kabuga, but UN prosecutors say there is strong evidence that some senior officials in Moi’s administration, most likely for reasons of money rather than politics, aided and abetted Kabuga for almost a decade. In April 1998, Kabuga was traced by the UN tribunal to four properties in Kenya, three of which belonged to one of Moi’s nephews, Hosea Kiplagat, according to a report by the think-tank International Crisis Group. In the police operation that followed, several Rwandan fugitives were detained but Kabuga was tipped off, investigators believe, and he slipped away. Kiplagat, now in his seventies, said he did not remember the allegation and declined to comment further.

Frustrated by the lack of progress, the US shifted gears in June 2002, announcing a $5m reward for information leading to Kabuga’s apprehension and plastering his face across the Kenyan media. It was then, with his eye on the reward, that Munuhe contacted the US embassy.

“I sat down with this informant, William [Munuhe], and we spent at least an hour and a half, two hours going back and forth, and in many ways he appeared very credible,” says special agent Gallo. More important for the embassy staff was the sudden appearance, days later, of a second source, a Kenyan schoolboy, who reported that he had seen Kabuga get into a government-plated vehicle in a residential district of central Nairobi.

As the US planned its next steps, the circle of people who knew of the two informants’ testimonies was kept as small as possible to avoid leaks, both Gallo and former US ambassador Carson say. Munuhe had said he was working for Zakayo Cheruiyot, Moi’s powerful permanent secretary for internal security, and that any leak — particularly to the Kenyan police — was likely to get back to Cheruiyot. But the circle must not have been tight enough, Gallo says, and soon Munuhe was dead and Kabuga was gone.

In the aftermath of Munuhe’s death, the schoolboy was moved to the US for his protection, Gallo and Carson say. Cheruiyot told the Kenyan media that he had known Munuhe but never met Kabuga and denied US allegations that he had been hiding the fugitive. The newly elected government of Mwai Kibaki also insisted it had no knowledge of the Rwandan’s whereabouts. Cheruiyot declined to comment further. “I have made my position perfectly clear,” he said recently, before hanging up the phone.

In the diplomatic community, opinion was split. Carson believed the scrutiny provoked by the killing had forced Kabuga to leave Kenya; he suggested Kabuga had then sought protection in a French-speaking west African country before moving to Europe. Rapp, the former ICTR prosecutor, was less convinced the Rwandan had severed his ties. Later, as US ambassador-at-large for war crimes, Rapp says he still received intelligence that Kabuga had been in Kenya.

It did not help that international justice is always an uphill battle, Brammertz says, pushing countries that are required to co-operate under the UN charter to actually help. “We still have today problems in getting requests for assistance executed in a number of countries in the African region,” he says.

He’s not the only one that played a role … but he’s one of the masterminds.” – Aimable Havugiyaremye, Rwandan prosecutor-general

With some countries, such as South Africa, the resistance is sometimes political. The tribunal sought the arrest of a Rwandan fugitive there in 2018 but relations between the two governments had deteriorated following the assassination of a former Rwandan intelligence chief in Johannesburg by suspected Rwandan operatives.

More often it is a problem of creaking bureaucracy. While the tribunal owns the arrest warrant and is often the only entity actively looking for its fugitives, it lacks prosecutorial powers to arrest suspects, surveil conspirators or subpoena information and must rely on co-operation from local law enforcement.

Historically, the ICTR, based in Tanzania, would have to submit requests for law enforcement assistance in another country to the appropriate embassy in the Tanzanian capital. That embassy would transmit the demand to its foreign ministry in its national capital, which would then pass the demand to the justice ministry, which would forward it to the police. “It would be months between the time you put in the request and the country actually doing anything about it,” says Rapp, remembering how the French police once ran surveillance on another suspected Rwandan fugitive in Paris four months after he had asked for it.

It meant that by the time Brammertz was handed the Rwandan brief in 2016, the trail had run cold. He knew he would need a different approach.

Brammertz has dark hair, flecked with grey, and an energetic way of speaking. He started his career as a national magistrate in Belgium, supervising cases involving organised crime, terrorism and drug trafficking, before climbing the ranks of the country’s judiciary. He holds a PhD in international law but also a masters degree in criminology. “The investigative aspect is my real passion,” he says.

At the IRMCT, he immediately set about reshaping his team. He hired Bob Reid, an Australian investigator whom he knew from their time together tracking war criminals at the Yugoslavian tribunal, and decided to return to Kabuga’s last known whereabouts — the University Hospital in Frankfurt.

In 2007, German officers arresting Kabuga’s son-in-law, Augustin Ngirabatware, a former Rwandan minister of planning who has since been convicted of incitement to commit genocide, had recovered a thumb drive that he tried to destroy. Downloading the data, it revealed an image of a hospital bill for a second man, using Tanzanian papers, who had undergone an operation in the city earlier that year to remove a benign tumour from his throat. That man, they determined, was Kabuga.

Poring over medical and immigration records, it was clear that Kabuga, using the same Tanzanian identity, had also received medical treatment in Germany in 2003 and perhaps had a stronger network in Europe than was previously suspected. Phone records showed that Kabuga had been spooked by his son-in-law’s arrest, leaving Frankfurt for Luxembourg and then Belgium before the trace was lost, according to Brammertz.

“The more we then looked at the support network and the family, the more we were convinced that all family members were living in Europe,” he says, adding that as time passes, the number of people a fugitive can rely on tends to wither, leaving them with only the most loyal family members for support.

More certain that he was on the trail of his target and eager to avoid the bureaucracy of individual requests for assistance that had derailed previous operations, Brammertz called a rare meeting of European security agencies in The Hague in July 2019.

In the months that followed, the European partners, supported by Interpol and Rwanda’s National Public Prosecution Authority, fed information to the tribunal. Then at the start of 2020, the UK’s Metropolitan Police identified one of Kabuga’s daughters travelling under her married name to mainland Europe. Initially, the pan-European team thought she was going to Belgium but slowly a pattern of movement began to materialise, according to Eric Emeraux.

Emeraux was then the head of France’s Office for Combating Crimes Against Humanity, Genocides and War Crimes (he also produces electronic music in his spare time under the moniker Matthias Ka). In 2019, after the meeting at The Hague, the unit launched its own investigation under French law and was eventually able to use cellphone tower analysis to track the movement of seven members of Kabuga’s family who lived in or around Paris or travelled there regularly from the UK and Belgium.

After analysing the data and sharing it with the UN tracking team, they saw that the family’s activity centred on one specific suburb of northern Paris, Asnières-sur-Seine. “We looked at the movement pattern for the entire year and we saw that for every single day of the year one of the children from the UK, from Belgium or from France was locked in at a specific cell tower,” says Brammertz.

As the team closed in, French police identified an apartment rented by one of the family and financial records of a large payment from a family member to a nearby hospital. A copy of a Congolese passport used by the patient bore the name Antoine Tounga and a picture of a man that Emeraux thought could have been Kabuga.

As the coronavirus pandemic swept through western Europe in the spring, restricting the family’s movement further, French police staked out the property and at dawn on May 16 more than a dozen officers in black combat uniforms stormed the small third-floor apartment.

“I had mixed emotions,” Emeraux says of the moment he came through the door and realised the man the world had chased for 26 years was in front of him. “A feeling of relief to have not failed, and a feeling of pride for the people of Rwanda.”

Kabuga’s lawyers have petitioned for the trial to take place in The Hague, citing his poor health. If the request fails, he will be transferred to the tribunal’s headquarters in Tanzania for a trial likely to start towards the end of 2021.

Genocide survivors, such as Ahishakiye Naphtal, who was 20 in 1994 and now heads an umbrella group of survivors’ organisations in Kigali, have asked that the proceedings take place in Rwanda so more survivors can participate, though they are unlikely to be successful. “To try Kabuga [in Rwanda] is the real justice,” he says.

Not everyone thinks it would be a just trial. Rwanda has tried over two million genocide suspects in grassroots, in some cases fairly. But over time, efforts by Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front to suppress dissent and dictate how the genocide is remembered have led to charges of “genocide ideology” and divisionism against prominent government critics, rights groups say.

Given Kabuga’s age and poor health, prosecutors and victims alike hope the trial will come swiftly, wherever it takes place. “No one who committed that kind of crime should go unpunished,” says Umubyeyi, who now lives outside Oxford, England.

For Brammertz, who was reappointed in June as prosecutor of the IRMCT for another two years, Kabuga’s capture was a moment of triumph: “I knew immediately what it would mean for survivors and victims.”

But his hunt is not over. The tribunal’s last “major fugitive”, Protais Mpiranya, the former commander of the presidential guard, remains at large, living, investigators suspect, in southern Africa and travelling, most likely, between Zimbabwe, South Africa and Congo. The US has, again, offered a $5 million reward for information leading to his arrest. Brammertz, again, is in hot pursuit.

Written by: Tom Wilson
Photographs by: Ivor Prickett

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