Rwandan genocide trial a symbolic step for France

A Paris court on Tuesday opened France’s first trial of a suspect in the 1994 Rwandan genocide. The trial is of major significance — judicially and diplomatically, but also symbolically — for France, which has been criticized for its role in the genocide and for harboring its perpetrators in the 20 years since.

Pascal Simbikangwa, a former Rwandan army and intelligence chief, stands accused of arming and instructing the extremist militias and Rwandan army at roadblocks in Rwanda during the genocide. Simbikangwa faces charges of complicity in genocide and complicity in crimes against humanity.

Roadblock attacks were part of a well-organized campaign that resulted in the deaths of 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus over the course of just 100 days. Wielding machetes, the extremist Hutu militia, known as the Interahamwe, stationed barricades, where they checked identity cards and beat and maimed passers-by.

Sometimes called “the torturer,” Simbikangwa would command people to crouch beside him so that he could beat them at his level, according to Philip Gourevitch, author of the 1998 book about the genocide “We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families.” Simbikangwa, 54, was paralyzed from the waist down after a 1980s car crash, but his disability reportedly did not diminish his stature in the regime’s inner circle.

He was also reportedly one of the instrumental forces behind Radio Television Libre des Milles Collines — the extremist propaganda station that blared orders to kill Tutsti “cockroaches” across Rwanda’s capital city of Kigali.

Five years ago, Simbikangwa was living under an alias on France’s Indian Ocean island of Mayotte, when he was discovered by a French couple, Alain Gauthier and his wife Dafroza, a chemical engineer from Rwanda. The two have made it their mission to track down suspected genocide perpetrators living in France.

The expected seven-week trial is made possible by 1996 and 2010 laws that grant French courts near-universal jurisdiction for exceptional crimes. If convicted, Simbikangwa could face a life in prison.

Charges of complicity, Gourevitch told the NewsHour, seem “oddly softened,” especially when in Rwanda, the directors of the killing are typically viewed as bearing more responsibility than the hatchet men.

On day one of the trial, Simbikangwa’s lawyers argued that the prosecution’s case is built on unverified witness accounts. The defense has also objected to the unusual move to film the trial, recordings of which the prosecution wants to be made available after its completion.

While the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal in Arusha, Tanzania, has sought to try Rwanda’s genocidaires, France has been reluctant to turn over any perpetrators. French courts will not allow Simbikangwa to be extradited to Rwanda.

Indeed, the significance of this case, according to Gourevitch and other observers of Franco-African relations, is that it’s in France. Ten years ago, when the Arusha tribunals were still in full throttle, Simbikangwa would have been a big enough catch to send there. But he’s nowhere near the biggest catch, and yet already, Gourevitch noted, his case is garnering more international press than some of the U.N. tribunals.

France has long protected Rwanda’s Hutu extremists as clients, so for them to put someone like Simbikangwa on trial is a change, Gourevitch said.

A French Justice Ministry spokesman called it the first trial in France on charges of genocide. The proceedings carry a symbolic weight, as the AP noted, in a country where the collaborationist regime helped the Nazis persecute Jews.

But France’s decision to try Simbikangwa and not to send him to Rwanda, Gourevitch said, is less about France confronting its own legacy, and more about “France dealing with the reality of the genocide.” That’s a diplomatic decision, he continued, given that other European countries, like Norway and Belgium, have tried genocide suspects well before this year’s 20th anniversary.

The Rwandan government welcomed Tuesday’s trial. “It is history being made. We have always wondered why it has taken 20 years… it is late, but it is a good sign,” said Rwandan Justice Minister Johnston Busingye.

There are another 27 cases related to the Rwandan genocide on the Paris court’s war crimes and crimes against humanity dockets, including one against the former first lady of Rwanda, Agathe Habyarimana, who was arrested by French police in Paris in 2010. Her husband, President Juvenal Habyarimana, a Hutu, was killed when his plane was shot down in Rwanda on April 6, 1994. This event has been widely credited with precipitating the mass killing.

Habyarimana was a close ally of French President Francois Mitterrand, who supported the Rwandan president with arms and money and overlooked many of his government’s abuses — the kind of post-colonial alliance that defined the politics of “Francafrique.”

In the wake of Habyarimana’s death, extremist Hutus set up an intermediary government to carry out their genocidal campaign. Simbikangwa served in both of these governments, to which France lent support. Paris did little to stop the mass killing in the spring of 1994, and Mitterrand, as the French newspaper Le Figaro later quoted him, is famous for saying at the time, “In such countries, genocide is not too important.”

Rwanda and France have only recently renewed relations, after Rwanda cut their ties when a French judge concluded that English-speaking Tutsi forces, led by current President Paul Kagame, targeted Habyarimana’s plane. In 2010, French President Nicolas Sarkozy acknowledged France had made “grave errors of judgement” with regard to the genocide, but did not issue a formal apology.