Kansas genocide suspect asks U.S. court to free him

WICHITA | An immigrant living in Kansas who is suspected of participating in Rwanda's 1994 genocide has asked a federal judge to free him pending his trial on immigration charges.

Lazare Kobagaya, 82, was scheduled to be in U.S. District Court in Wichita on Wednesday afternoon for a detention hearing on federal charges of unlawfully obtaining U.S. citizenship in 2006 and fraud and misuse of an alien registration card. An indictment, filed in January and unsealed last week, also seeks to revoke his U.S. citizenship.

Kobagaya has lived in Topeka for two years. The Justice Department alleges Kobagaya lied during naturalization proceedings in Wichita by claiming he had lived in Burundi from 1993 to 1995. It contends he concealed that he had lived in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide and participated in the attacks and slaughter of hundreds of Tutsis.

In court documents filed Tuesday, defense attorney Kurt Kerns asked for Kobagaya's release on bond. Kerns argued that Kobagaya is not charged with violent crimes. He also noted that to prove that he lied, prosecutors have the difficult task of showing that he participated in war crimes in Rawanda.

"This case will therefore require proof as to what happened in a small Rwandan town 15 years ago at a time when that country was encased in a civil war," Kerns wrote.

An estimated 500,000 to 800,000 people were killed in Rawanda 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.

According to court papers, Kobagaya was a Hutu refugee from Burundi living in Rwanda at the time of the genocide.

The Justice Department claims that in April 1994, he directed a group of Hutus to burn down houses belonging to the Tutsis. Prosecutors also contend he mobilized attackers and ordered and coerced them to kill hundreds of Tutsis.

To bolster its case for his release, the defense provided the court with a list of 13 people wanted for alleged war crimes in Rwanda. Kobagaya's name was not on the list, which was issued by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, the group established in 1994 by the U.N. Security Council to prosecute alleged war criminals.

"While the Government has attempted to paint him as a fugitive Rwandan war criminal, the evidence will eventually prove otherwise," Kerns wrote. "Lazare is presumed innocent. Lazare is innocent."

An affidavit unsealed Tuesday provides a different picture of Kobagaya.

In it, Mark Larkin, a special agent for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, describes the account of several witnesses who claimed to have known Kobagaya and saw him ordering killings and leading attacks in Rawanda against fleeing Tutsis. The affidavit alleges that Kobagaya worked with Francois Bazaramba, a man living in Finland who is suspected of committing war crimes in Rawanda. Kobagaya was allegedly an adviser to Bazaramba.

According to the affidavit, the men fled Rawanda in July 1994. Kobagaya went to the Congo, then Kenya, where he lived in a refugee camp until immigrating to the U.S. Bazaramba has been arrested in Finland where he is awaiting trial, according to the affidavit.