Rwandan genocide suspect Felicien Kabuga was arrested on Saturday near Paris after 25 years on the run, accused of playing a leading role in one of the worst massacres of the 20th century.
The 84-year-old, who is Rwanda’s most-wanted man and had a $5m bounty on his head, was living under a false identity in a flat in Asnieres-Sur-Seine, according to the French justice ministry.
French gendarmes arrested him at 05:30 GMT on Saturday. Kabuga had been hiding with the complicity of his children. A police statement described him as “one of the world’s most wanted fugitives”.
A Hutu businessman, Kabuga is accused of funding militias that massacred about 800,000 ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus over 100 days in 1994.
“Since 1994, Felicien Kabuga, known to have been the financier of Rwanda genocide, had with impunity stayed in Germany, Belgium, Congo-Kinshasa, Kenya, or Switzerland,” a justice ministry statement said.
The arrest paves the way for bringing the fugitive in front of the Paris appeal court and later to the International Court of Justice in The Hague.
Lewis Mudge from New York-based Human Rights Watch said “it is a huge day for Rwanda”.
“Felicien Kabuga is one of the big fish. He is one of the last remaining individuals still out there who is alleged to have had a planning purpose with regards to the Rwanda genocide,” Mudge told Al Jazeera.
Kabuga was indicted on genocide charges by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.
Rwandan prosecutors have said financial documents found in the capital, Kigali, after the genocide indicated that Kabuga used his companies to import vast quantities of machetes that were used to slaughter people.
The wealthy businessman also was accused of establishing the station Radio Television Mille Collines that broadcast vicious propaganda against the ethnic Tutsi, as well as training and equipping the Interahamwe militia that led the killing spree.
Kabuga was close to former President Juvenal Habyarimana, whose death when his plane was shot down over Kigali sparked the 100-day genocide. Kabuga’s daughter married Habyarimana’s son.
‘Could not have happened’
Kabuga is expected to be transferred to the custody of the UN mechanism, where he will stand trial.
Phil Clark, a professor at SOAS University of London, said the arrest was significant as Kabuga played a crucial role in the mass killings.
“The genocide could not have happened without Kabuga, he basically bankrolled the entire genocide,” Clark told Al Jazeera.
“He basically produced, created and funded the militias that carried out many of the largest massacres during the genocide. He also bankrolled the main ‘hate’ radio station that incited many of the key massacres, and he also enabled the import of about 500,000 machetes, without which the killing spree would have been impossible. Without Kabuga, the genocide couldn’t have happened.”
Olivier Olsen, head of the association of homeowners in the building where he lived, described Kabuga as “someone very discreet … who murmured when you said hello”.
Two other Rwandan genocide suspects, Augustin Bizimana and Protais Mpiranya, are still being pursued by international justice.
Serge Brammertz, chief prosecutor of the Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals (MICT), said Kabuga’s arrest is a reminder that those responsible for genocide can be brought to account, “even 26 years after their crimes”.
He added: “Today’s arrest underlines the strength of our determination.”
France has long been known as a hiding place for wanted genocide suspects and French investigators currently have dozens of cases underway.
But so far there have been only three convictions from two trials with another trial – of a French-Rwandan former hotel driver accused of transporting Hutu militiamen – set to begin in September.
The genocide has cast a long shadow over Franco-Rwandan relations.
Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame, a Tutsi, accuses France of having supported the ethnic Hutu forces behind most of the slaughter and of helping some of the perpetrators to escape.
Last year, President Emmanuel Macron announced the creation of a commission of experts that will delve into the French state’s archives in a bid to set the historical record straight.
HRW’s Mudge said there will be questions asked about how Kabuga was able to avoid arrest for so long.
“There should be an absolute investigation into how he was able to get this other identity and how he was able to evade justice for 26 long years,” he said.
Officials in Rwanda hailed the arrest.
“After many years, the old guards in the French government who could have been protecting Kabuga have left power and you find the young generation have no interest in protecting the ageing fugitive under the new administration,” said Gonza Muganwa, a Rwandan political analyst.
“It’s clear he was being protected and some powerful people knew his hiding place. They sold him.”