OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — A federal appeals court refused Wednesday to revive a lawsuit that alleges Rwandan President Paul Kagame ordered the deaths of the former leaders of Rwanda and Burundi.
The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver handed down the decision in a lawsuit filed by the widows of Juvenal Habyarimana, then president of Rwanda, and Cyprien Ntaryamira, the former president of Burundi.
The two leaders were aboard an aircraft that was shot down by two surface-to-air missiles as it approached the Rwandan capital of Kigali on April 16, 1994. The decision by a three-judge panel of the appeals court says their deaths fueled the Rwandan genocide, which spread violence across East Central Africa and led to the deaths of between 500,000 and 1 million people.
The men’s widows filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Oklahoma City that blamed Kagame for their husbands’ deaths and sought $350 million in damages under the Alien Tort Claims Act and a variety of state, federal and international laws.
The lawsuit was filed in Oklahoma because Kagame has ongoing contact with the state due to the Rwandan government’s affiliation with Oklahoma Christian University in Oklahoma City.
The lawsuit alleges that Kagame ordered the attack himself during a meeting with others who were instructed to form a team specialized in the use of surface-to-air missiles furnished by Uganda. The alleged conspiracy involved members of the non-governmental Rwanda Patriotic Army, according to the appeals court’s ruling. Kagame has denied involvement in the assassinations.
But the decision says identifying those responsible for downing the aircraft is not necessary to the case because Kagame, as the sitting head of a foreign state, is immune from the court’s jurisdiction while he is in office.
After the lawsuit was filed, the U.S. government, at the request of the Rwandan government, submitted legal papers that suggested Kagame’s immunity and said the U.S. Constitution gives the president sole responsibility to represent the nation in its foreign relations.
The assassinations of the former leaders brought ethnic tensions between Rwanda’s majority Hutus and Tutsis to the breaking point and triggered a wave of violence. The killings spread across the country and lasted about 100 days until Kagame, a Tutsi and the leader of the rebel army, overthrew the Hutu-led government. Habyarimana was a Hutu.
His widow, Agathe Habyarimana, lives in France and is wanted in Rwanda on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity. France denied her request for asylum in 2004, but last year French courts refused to allow her to be extradited.