FRANKFURT (AFP) – A former Rwandan mayor went on trial on Tuesday accused of ordering three Tutsi massacres during the country's 1994 genocide, in the first such case prosecuted in Germany.
Onesphore Rwabukombe, a 54-year-old ethnic Hutu, is accused of genocide, murder as well as incitement to genocide and murder before the higher regional court in the western city of Frankfurt.
"Between April 11 and 15, 1994 the accused ordered and coordinated three massacres in which a total of at least 3,730 members of the Tutsi minority who had sought refuge in church buildings were killed," prosecutor Christian Ritscher read out from the charge sheet in court.
Rwabukombe, a former mayor of the town of Muvumba in northeastern Rwanda who has lived in Germany since 2002, was arrested in July. The charges were filed with a court in Frankfurt on July 29.
The trial is due to run until at least October. He could face life in prison if convicted.
The Rwandan government and now German prosecutors accuse him of involvement in the systematic killing campaign in 1994 which left an estimated 800,000 dead, most of them Tutsis.
Beyond trials before Rwandan courts and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) in Tanzania, several other European countries have tried Rwandan suspects over the genocide.
Germany has prosecuted suspected war criminals from the Nazi era and the former Yugoslavia for genocide but this is the first time it has tried someone for alleged links to the Rwandan bloodletting.
Rwanda's Prosecutor General Martin Ngoga welcomed the trial.
"We are grateful to Germany," he told AFP.
German prosecutors say Rwabukombe allegedly called on three occasions in the first half of April 1994 for a pogrom against the Tutsis, with the result that a "countless" number of people were murdered.
He is also accused of ordering a lower-ranking local official to turn away Tutsi refugees seeking shelter at his home, threatening otherwise to have his family killed. At least one of these refugees was subsequently murdered.
It was the third time he had been arrested in Germany. A Frankfurt court ordered his release in November 2008 after months in custody and he was again set free in May 2009 after five months for lack of evidence.
A new German warrant was issued on July 21 following an investigation by the federal prosecutor.
Around 50 witnesses have been called to testify at the trial, many of whom will have to travel great distances to appear before the judges, a court spokesman said.
According to non-governmental organisation Trial Watch, Rwabukombe was listed as number 435 on the most-wanted list of suspects responsible for the genocide in Rwanda before his arrest.
A top Rwandan genocide suspect, a former army captain nicknamed the "Butcher of Butare", went on trial Monday before the ICTR.
Captain Ildephonse Nizeyimana is accused of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes which he denied in earlier hearings after his arrest and transfer to the Tanzania-based court in 2009.