Lawyer says leader’s state ties make lawsuit feasible
Oklahoman 32 Comments
Published: May 1, 2010
A long-standing controversy surrounding the president of an African country resurfaced this week in an unlikely place — federal court in Oklahoma City.
The widows of two assassinated African presidents filed a wrongful-death civil lawsuit Thursday against Rwandan President Paul Kagame and nine others.
The widows are seeking $350 million.
Kagame spoke Friday at a commencement ceremony at Oklahoma Christian University in Oklahoma City.
"This is definitely not a publicity stunt,” said one of the widows’ attorneys, Kurt Kerns of Wichita, Kan. "He convinces people that he was the savior of Rwanda, and the genocide and the reality is exactly the opposite.”
The widows allege that in 1994 Kagame, leader of the Tutsi rebel group, the Rwandan Patriotic Front, ordered the missile attack that killed their Hutu husbands.
Everyone aboard died. The deaths sparked the massacre of more than 500,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus, an event known as the Rwandan Genocide. The slaughter ended after 100 days when Kagame’s group seized control of the country.
Kagame has in the past denied he is to blame for the missile attack. "I am not responsible for Habyarimana’s death and I don’t care,” he told the BBC in 2006. "I wasn’t responsible for his security. … I was fighting that government.”
The widows’ attorneys contend the federal court in Oklahoma City has jurisdiction over their complaints because of the "ongoing, substantial contacts between Oklahoma and” Kagame and his government.
Kagame first visited Oklahoma Christian University in 2006. The university and the Rwandan government have a scholarship program that brings Rwanda’s top high school students to Oklahoma to study.
"President Kagame is at Oklahoma Christian as the head of Rwanda to honor the 10 outstanding Rwandan Presidential Scholars who are graduating,” a university spokesman said Friday. "We do not want to distract from their remarkable accomplishments by getting involved in the politics of Rwanda and surrounding countries. We cannot comment on pending lawsuits.”
University President Mike O’Neal in 2005 compared Kagame to George Washington. On Friday, O’Neal said, "President Kagame has received worldwide recognition for his leadership and peace building, reconciliation, development, good government, promotion of human rights and women’s empowerment.”
The widows’ attorneys contend Kagame can be sued in the United States under a 220-year-old law known as the Alien Tort Claims Act. They said a judgment against him could be collected from any assets he has in the United States.
In their lawsuit, the attorneys argued: "There is no independent functioning judiciary in Rwanda and any suit against defendants there would have been and would still be futile and would result in serious reprisals.”
Rwanda cut off diplomatic relations with France for three years after the investigation.
An inquiry by a Rwandan panel concluded this year that Hutu soldiers shot down the plane because extremist Hutu politicians and military leaders were upset over Habyarimana’s talks with the Tutsis.