Jury unconvinced Kan. man lied about genocide

June 1, 2011 - 2:44 AM
Genocide Trial

FILE - In this file photo provided by the Segwick County Sheriff's Department is Lazare Kobagaya. A federal jury convicted an 84-year-old Kansas man on Tuesday, May 31, 2011, of lying on his immigration forms about his whereabouts during the Rwanda genocide, but it did not find that the government proved its case that he took part in the mass killings. (AP Photo/Segwick County Sheriff via Wichita Eagle, File)

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — A case that prosecutors say was the first in the U.S. to require proof of genocide ended with jurors unconvinced that a Kansas man lied about his role in the 1994 Rwandan mass killings.

While jurors found that Lazare Kobagaya lied on his immigration forms about his whereabouts during the Rwandan genocide, they did not find that the U.S. government proved he took part in the atrocities.

Kobagaya was convicted Tuesday of one count of lying to immigration officials, with the jury deadlocking on another count. U.S. District Judge Monti Belot declared a mistrial on that count.

The five-week federal trial in Wichita brought a litany of admitted killers and others to the stand to testify. In the end, jurors were left to decide whether they believed the government's witnesses from Rwanda or the defense witnesses from Rwanda when it came to whether Kobagaya participated in the genocide.

At least 500,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed in Rwanda during the four-month-long wave of violence in 1994.

It was unclear what was next for Kobagaya, an 84-year-old native of the African country of Burundi who now lives in Topeka. Prosecutors declined to say whether the lone guilty verdict was enough for U.S. authorities to revoke Kobagaya's citizenship and deport him or whether they would seek a retrial on the remaining count.

Kobagaya faces up to 10 years in prison, although he is likely to get far less, if any, prison time under federal sentencing guidelines. The charge also carries a potential fine of up to $250,000. A sentencing date has not been set.

The jury found that Kobagaya lied on his application to move to the U.S. when he wrote that from 1993 until 1995, he was in Burundi, which is south of Rwanda. But the jury did not find, as part of that same count, that the government also proved he lied on his visa application when he stated he didn't engage in genocide. Prosecutors needed to convince jurors that only one of those statements was false to win a conviction on the visa fraud count.

The other count had to do with his citizenship application. On that count, prosecutors alleged Kobagaya made four false statements when asked whether he ever persecuted anyone, committed a crime for which he was not arrested, gave false information to immigration officials or lied to gain entry to the United States. Prosecutors failed to convince the jury that even one of those statements was false.

Prosecutors say Kobagaya was in Rwanda in April of 1994 when the mass killings began, and government witnesses testified that Kobagaya encouraged fellow Hutus to kill Tutsis and burn their homes in the village of Birambo. They also testified that Kobagaya organized an attack at Mount Nyakizu in which thousands of fleeing Tutsis were killed.

During closing arguments, prosecutors told jurors Kobagaya enjoyed the benefits of U.S. citizenship for 14 years after lying about his role in one of "the great crimes of the 20th century."

Kobagaya's attorneys argued that their client is innocent, and his family has said in the past that the Rwandan government wants to prosecute him because Kobagaya testified on behalf of another genocide suspect who settled in Finland. His attorneys say the Rwandan government coerced convicted killers to testify against Kobagaya in exchange for their release from prison.

The case has spanned two continents some 8,000 miles apart and is likely to be among the most expensive federal cases to be tried in this country.

Government and defense attorneys have traveled to Rwanda with their investigators, translators and even a court reporter to take depositions. Taxpayers also are picking up the tab for defense costs for Kobagaya, who has two court-appointed attorneys.

Prosecutors brought nine foreign witnesses to the United States for the trial that began April 26. The defense brought in 35 foreign witnesses, although not all ended up testifying. Each of the foreign witnesses was paid $96 a day over the several weeks they remained in the United States during the trial.

Defense attorney Kurt Kerns told reporters that he was "absolutely" glad the jury did not find that Kobagaya lied about the genocide. He declined further comment.

Kobagaya's family declined to comment.

Kobagaya, who speaks an African dialect known as Kirundi, came to the attention of U.S. authorities after he gave a deposition on behalf of Francois Bazaramba, a former Rwandan pastor who was sentenced last year to life imprisonment by a Finnish court for committing genocide. Kobagaya was indicted two years ago on immigration charges.