Rwandan tycoon Felicien Kabuga played a "substantial" role in the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi that shocked the world, prosecutors have said at the opening of his trial in The Hague.
Once one of Rwanda's richest men, the 87-year-old Kabuga used his vast wealth to set up hate media that urged ethnic Hutus to kill rival Tutsi "snakes" and supplied the murderous Interahamwe militia with machetes, the prosecution said.
The wheelchair-bound Kabuga himself refused to appear for his trial at the UN's International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals on Thursday due to a dispute over his lawyer.
"Kabuga didn't need to wield a rifle or a machete at a roadblock, rather he supplied weapons in bulk and facilitated the training that prepared the Interahamwe to use them," prosecutor Rashid S. Rashid told the court.
"He didn't need to pick up a microphone to call for the extermination of the Tutsi on the radio, rather he founded, funded and served as president of... the radio station that broadcast genocidal propaganda across Rwanda."
After decades on the run, Kabuga was arrested in France in 2020 and sent to a UN court to face charges for the 1994 massacre.
Kabuga's lawyers entered a not guilty plea at a first appearance in 2020 and have repeatedly tried but failed to halt the trial on health grounds.
But Rashid told the court, "Twenty-eight years after the events, this trial is about holding Felicien Kabuga to account for his substantial and intentional role in that genocide."
The trial is being closely watched in the small central African nation, including in Kabuga's native village of Nyange.
"We are looking forward to his trial. It has been a long time coming," Anastase Kamizinkunze, the district head of IBUKA, the umbrella association for genocide survivors, told AFP.
Human Rights Watch welcomed the start of the trial.
"This is a significant step in efforts to ensure accountability for planning, ordering, and carrying out the genocide in Rwanda," the rights group said.
An ally of Rwanda's then-ruling party, Kabuga allegedly helped create the Interahamwe Hutu militia group and the Radio-Television Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM), whose broadcasts incited people to murder.
The radio station identified the hiding places of Tutsis where they were later killed, prosecutors said in the indictment.
Kabuga also allegedly imported and distributed machetes to genocidal groups and ordered them to kill Tutsis.
More than 50 witnesses are expected to appear for the prosecution, which said they needed about 40 hours to wrap up their case.
After fleeing Rwanda, Kabuga spent more than 20 years evading an arrest warrant issued in 1997 by using a series of false passports.
Investigators say he was helped by a network of former Rwandan allies to evade justice in several countries before he was finally caught in a small apartment in Paris.
His lawyers argued he should face trial in France for health reasons but the nation's top court ruled he should be moved to UN custody.
Kabuga is one of the last top suspects of the Rwandan genocide to face justice, with 62 convicted so far.
Others, including the man seen as the architect of the genocide, Augustin Bizimana, and former presidential guard commander Protais Mpiranya, have both died.
Victims have called for a swift trial for Kabuga noting "if he dies before facing justice, he would have died under the presumption of innocence".
But in Nyange, many residents still speak fondly of the man who rose from humble farming stock to run an empire of coffee, tea and real estate.
"He paid us well," said Alphonsine Musengimana, 35, who worked on Kabuga's tea plantations as a child.