In Wichita Trial, Justice—or Not—for the Rwandan Genocide

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On April 15, 1994, just days into a bloodletting that would leave nearly a tenth of Rwanda's population dead, a mob of ethnic Hutus gathered in the village marketplace in Birambo. Incited and possibly organized by local Hutu leaders, the mob ransacked homes and businesses owned by ethnic Tutsis. In the days that followed, hundreds of Tutsis who fled into the nearby mountains were hunted down and killed. Seemingly anomic yet carefully organized, episodes like that in Birambo would be repeated thousands of times over the coming months, as militants, politicians, and prominent local Hutus stoked and even stage-managed a gruesome war of all against all.

Wichita, Kansas is eight time zones away from Birambo. It's a strange place for a high-stakes legal and political showdown over how to punish or even identify the local-scale leaders of the Rwandan genocide, a matter that's morphed into a debate over the legacy of the genocide itself. Yet the freedom of Lazare Kobagaya, an 84-year-old Rwandan immigrant and Kansas resident, depends on how these two interrelated debates play out in a federal courtroom.

Kobagaya is currently on trial in Wichita for allegedly lying about his involvement in the events in and around Birambo while he was in the process of applying for U.S. citizenship. The government, which began presenting its case last week, believes that Kobagaya helped lead and organize the Hutu mob in Birambo, and violated federal U.S. law by claiming on his N-400 naturalization form that he had never "persecuted (either directly or indirectly) any person because of race, religion, national origin, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion." If convicted, Kobagaya faces jail time, the revocation of his U.S. citizenship, and deportation to Rwanda, where he would likely face another trial -- this time for genocide.

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