Fulgence Kayishema, one of the last fugitives wanted in the 1994 Rwanda genocide, appeared in court in the South African city of Cape Town on Friday, two days after being arrested after 22 years on the run.
He is said to have taken part in one of the bloodiest episodes of the genocide, when thousands of men, women and children who sought shelter in a church were killed.
Dressed in a blue jacket, black trousers and glasses, he denied any role in the massacre after being questioned by a local reporter before entering the packed court.
“What I can say, we are sorry to hear what was happening,” he said, asking if he had anything to say to the victims.
“There was a civil war at the time and people were killing each other … I had no role.”
Surrounded by armed officers wearing helmets and bullet-proof vests, Kayishema briefly held a prayer book titled “Jesus First” before introducing himself to the court.
The 62-year-old appeared calm and composed as a state prosecutor read the charges against him.
They include “genocide” and conspiracy to commit genocide “in relation to the killing of more than 2,000 people in Rwanda in 1994,” prosecutor Nathan Adriaanse told the court.
At the end of a short hearing, magistrate Ronel Oliver jailed him.
He will be held at the maximum security Pollsmoor prison in Cape Town until his next court appearance scheduled for June 2.
The former Rwandan police inspector was arrested on Wednesday at a vineyard in the small winelands town of Paarl, 60 kilometers (35 miles) north of Cape Town.
He lived in South Africa under an alias for more than two decades, prosecutors said.
Killing the church
He was described by the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals (MICT) — the successor to the UN court that prosecuted many major suspects — as “one of the world’s most wanted genocide fugitives.”
Around 800,000 Rwandans, most of them ethnic Tutsis, were killed in 100 days at the hands of Hutu extremists.
Kayishema and others are said to have killed more than 2,000 men, women and children who took refuge in the Catholic church in Nyange in Kivumu district.
“Kayishema directly participated in the planning and execution of this massacre, including buying and distributing fuel to burn the church with refugees inside,” the MICT said on Thursday, announcing his arrest.
“When this failed, Kayishema and others used a bulldozer to demolish the church, burying and killing the refugees inside.”
“Kayishema and others then managed the transfer of the corpses from the church grounds to the graves.”
South African police said the arrest was made in response to an Interpol red notice, and that the suspect was living under the false name of Donatien Nibashumba.
Eric Ntabazalila, a spokesman for the National Prosecuting Authority, said Kayishema applied for asylum in South Africa in January 2000, pretending to be a citizen of Burundi.
Four years ago he used the same alias to apply for refugee status, Ntabazalila said, adding that the suspect was understood to be a “family man”.
On Friday, the court was told that Kayishema will face additional charges of fraud and breaching South Africa’s immigration laws, and further charges are likely to follow.
The search for Kayishema has spread to countries across Africa, targeting a man who used several aliases and false documents and relied on a “network of trusted supporters”, the MICT said.
The United States is offering up to a $5 million reward for information leading to Kayishema’s arrest, transfer or conviction, but there are no details on whether it played a role in the capture.
The MICT in 2015 took over the work of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), which was established by the UN after the genocide.
Before handing down the reins, the ICTR sentenced 62 people, including the 30-year term given to former minister Augustin Ngirabatware, and acquitted 14.
Rwanda began the trial of genocide suspects in 1996, and in one day in April 1998, 22 of them were executed by firing squad.
It abolished the death penalty in 2007, removing the ICTR’s main obstacle to extraditing genocide suspects to Rwanda for trial.
Between 2005 and 2012, more than 12,000 community-based courts put nearly two million people on trial and convicted 65 percent, sending most to prison.