A trial that prosecutors say is the first in America involving genocide is set to start Tuesday at the federal courthouse in Wichita.
Lazare Kobagaya, 84, was living in Wichita when authorities charged him in January 2009 with lying on his forms to obtain American citizenship. As part of the charges, prosecutors claim Kobagaya ordered the deaths of hundreds of people during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.
Kobagaya's defense lawyer, Kurt Kerns of Wichita, has said his client was fleeing the country during ethnic attacks that resulted in the deaths of at least a half-million people.
Prosecutors say Kobagaya stated on immigration papers in 2005 and 2006 that he lived in Burundi, a neighboring nation, in 1994. But he actually ordered the slaughter of people in the Nyakizu region of southern Rwanda, the government claims.
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The case has seen dramatic twists en route to trial, with lawyers from both sides trudging across the globe and through war-torn parts of Africa searching for witnesses. Kerns even faced being jailed in Rwanda during one visit while trying to interview an expert witness.
Some 50 witnesses for both sides will be brought to Wichita from Africa to testify, according to an order filed last week by U.S. District Judge Monti Belot. He said he expects the trial to last 10 weeks or more.
The trial has five prosecutors. Alan Metzger from Wichita is on the case with two attorneys from the special investigations division and two from the criminal division of the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C.
The charges stem from ethnic attacks in which an estimated 500,000 to 800,000 people were killed from April to July 1994. Members of the Hutu ethnic group slaughtered those of Tutsi heritage.
The U.S. has no criminal jurisdiction over crimes committed abroad, but it can prosecute someone for lying on a naturalization form.
That form specifically asks applicants whether they have participated in genocide.
Prosecutors say Kobagaya lied on immigration and citizenship documents in 2005 and 2006. The documents say he had moved from Rwanda to Burundi in 1994. He also checked a box saying he had not participated in genocide.
As a result, the government says, he illegally obtained American citizenship.
If convicted, Kobagaya faces deportation, which could then have him facing war crimes charges in Rwanda.
Kobagaya, who has family throughout Kansas, has said he hopes the justice system will help him clear his name.
His lawyer has experience in trying cases involving potential international war crimes.
Kerns is one of about two dozen U.S. lawyers who practice before the International War Crimes Tribunal in the Netherlands. In 2003, Kerns represented a Croatian commander charged with the torture of Bosnians in the 1990s.
Crimes against humanity
Kerns said Kobagaya's testimony on behalf of a former neighbor, who was prosecuted in Finland for genocide, led to the current charges in the U.S.
Before he spoke up for his neighbor, Kobagaya's name wasn't among thousands of records that have been collected from the Rwandan genocide, Kerns has said in previous interviews.
In 2007, the Finnish government charged former Baptist minister Francois Bazaramba with crimes against humanity.
Finland refused to extradite Bazaramba back to Rwanda, saying he could not get a fair trial in that country.
A Finnish jury convicted Bazaramba, 59, and last summer he received a life sentence. He is appealing his conviction.
Bazaramba's lawyer came to the U.S. to interview former neighbors from Rwanda. During that interview, Kobagaya said he didn't know Bazaramba had participated in the genocide and gave video testimony in Bazaramba's defense.
Kobagaya then began being accused of helping Bazaramba in the genocide, his lawyer said in statements last year.
Search for witnesses
Prosecutors say their witnesses claim Kobagaya worked with Bazaramba in planning and carrying out the killings.
"Several characterize him as a leader of the genocide," U.S. authorities said of Kobagaya in a letter to the Finnish government requesting records from its case.
"The witnesses allege that Kobagaya incited others to commit arson, assault and murder by directing people to commit those acts and threatening those who tried to decline to participate," the letter added.
Both Kerns and prosecutors have been searching for witnesses in Africa. One of those trips last June almost landed Kerns in a Rwandan jail.
Kerns had gone to the country to interview a potential expert witness in the trial. Peter Erlinder, a law professor from Minnesota, had published opinions on the genocide that were critical of the current Rwandan government.
Erlinder was arrested and accused of denying the genocide — a crime in Rwanda. Kerns was then quoted as calling the police "punks," and the Wichita lawyer also faced jail.
A Rwandan judge demanded Kerns prove he was an accredited lawyer. A letter e-mailed overseas from Tim O'Brien, president of the Kansas Bar Association, helped keep Kerns out of jail.
Erlinder was later released for medical reasons and allowed to return to America, after a plea from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Witnesses in the case have received threats, according to documents filed by Human Rights Watch — an international victims advocate group.
The group also said in a recent report that it found "numerous violations of civil and political rights" last year under the regime of Rwandan President Paul Kagame.
As trial neared last week, Kerns filed a motion to prohibit prosecutors from putting people from Rwanda at a local motel where defense witnesses were staying.
Prosecutors say they are providing translators and escorts. Kerns said in his motion that he suspected the translators might try to intimidate witnesses.
The government said witnesses on both sides need help "with mundane tasks. For example, the escorts will be able to assist with everyday chores such as reading menus and communicating other basic needs," Kerns said, quoting a memo to him.
The translators and escorts would help Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, and authorities from the Department of Homeland Security, officials have said.
So far, names of witnesses have only been provided alphabetically — and not whether they are being called by the prosecution or defense — to protect them.
Jury selection begins Tuesday.