When Léon Mugesera last spoke to a crowd of Rwandans, he had no trouble expressing himself in his native Kinyarwanda tongue. That was in 1992, when he made a now infamous speech urging the country's Hutu population to rise up against the Tutsi minority.
But in a packed courtroom here Monday, where he faces charges of genocide and inciting genocide, Mr. Mugesera demanded his trial be held in French.
It was his second appearance in a Rwandan court since Canada deported him to Kigali in January after a 17-year legal battle.
Language is at the crux of the case against Mr. Mugesera. The speech he made 20 years ago to a gathering of thousands of loyalists of the MRND political party, and the party itself, became driving forces behind the Hutu-Power movement that eventually led to pogroms against the Tutsi and decimated the population.
Mr. Mugesera, a linguist by profession, became animated when he took the stage before a Rwandan judge and told the court that Rwanda has three official languages: Kinyarwanda, French and English. "It is my right to choose the language of my trial and the constitution gives me the right to select the language of my choice," he said. "I prefer French."
Rwanda's chief prosecutor, Martin Ngoga, objected. "Every participant in the case, Mugesera and his lawyer, understand Kinyarwanda," he said. "The speech at Kabaya which constitutes the object of the crime he is accused of was in Kinyarwanda."
In Monday's hearing, Mr. Mugesera was expected to enter a plea but, instead, the proceeding digressed to a debate over language. He told the court he needed to be tried in French for the benefit of a team of lawyers that would come to defend him, including six from Canada. However, no Canadian lawyers have volunteered. But a move to French might also serve to distance him from the fiery speech in which he referred to the Tutsi as "cockroaches" and said "the people are obliged to take responsibility and wipe out this scum." He went on to refer to folklore that says the Tutsi originally came to Rwanda from Ethiopia and said they should be "sent home."
What is lost in translation into French is the meaning behind his suggestion that the Tutsi should go via a "shortcut on the Nyrabarongo River," which connects Ethiopia to Rwanda though the Nile. His Canadian defence lawyers had suggested in immigration hearings in Canada that Mr. Mugesera meant that the Tutsi should leave in boats. However, that passage is not navigable by boat, and so his words are widely seen as a reference to people floating in water.
That image proved to be prophetic when thousands of corpses – victims of the genocide – clogged the waterway in 1994, eventually rotting in Lake Victoria. Footage of the floating bodies is familiar to Rwandans as it is often replayed here, along with Mr. Mugesera's discourse.
Interpretation of that speech was the subject of much of the years of legal wrangling in Canada before Mr. Mugesera was finally extradited. Also at issue were concerns that Mr. Mugesera would be tortured while in Rwandan custody. There has been no evidence of ill treatment since he arrived back in Kigali. In his first two public appearances, Mr. Mugesera seemed calm and rested as he arrived in court wearing handcuffs and a smart grey suit.
After Mr. Mugesera's return, Rwandan officials sought to alleviate concerns about the fairness of the country's justice system by establishing the special court. He will be the first defendant to appear before Rwanda's special International Crimes Chamber, run by Rwandan judges, after he formally enters a plea in the case.
The new system "is to give the international community and the Rwandan people a sense that we are capable of judging these cases and judging them well and transparently," said Rwandan Justice Minister Tharcisse Karugarama in an interview. He added that trials held in the new chamber would be given priority so that they can be disposed of quickly.
A decision is expected Tuesday on whether the trial will proceed in French.