PARIS, France – A French court on Tuesday, February 4, begins hearing the landmark trial of a former Rwandan army captain charged with complicity in the 1994 genocide that left 800,000 people dead.
Wheelchair-bound Pascal Simbikangwa, 54, goes on trial in France after being arrested in October 2008 on the French Indian Ocean island of Mayotte, where he had been living in hiding for three years.
He is being tried under laws adopted in 1996 and 2010 that allow French courts to consider cases of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes committed in Rwanda and other countries.
The historic case is being watched closely in France, which was accused of failing to rein in the Rwandan regime at the time of the genocide and of later dragging its feet over the repatriation or prosecution of individuals suspected of involvement in crimes against humanity.
The trial is expected to last six to eight weeks and, in a rare situation for France, will be filmed for posterity, with recordings available once the case is concluded.
Simbikangwa, who has been a paraplegic since a car accident in 1986, is facing charges of complicity to commit genocide in connection with incidents in the capital Kigali and his native Gisenyi region in the northwest.
Simbikangwa, who denies all the charges against him, is accused of supplying arms, instructions and encouragement to Interahamwe Hutu militia who were manning road blocks and killing Tutsi men, women and children as they arrived.
Simbikangwa acknowledges being close to the regime of Hutu president Juvenal Habyarimana, whose assassination on April 6, 1994, unleashed the genocide, in which most of the victims were members of the minority Tutsi community.
But he denies participating in or organizing massacres.
He was initially charged with genocide and crimes against humanity but the charges were downgraded to complicity.
A separate allegation of involvement in torture was dropped on statute of limitations grounds.
His lawyers have attacked the prosecution case as being based purely on unchallenged witness accounts.
They say his trial is the result of pressure on the judiciary against the background of a rapprochement between France and the current government in Rwanda following three years (2006-2009) during which diplomatic relations were broken off.
“There is pressure from the Rwanda authorities on France and monstrous pressure from the civil parties who initiated the case,” the lawyers, Alexandra Bourgeot and Fabrice Epstein, said in a statement.
They said Simbikangwa was being made a “scapegoat” for the genocide on the approach of its 20th anniversary.
‘Cog’ in a genocidal machine
Prosecutors abandoned an attempt to also implicate Simbikangwa in an April 1994 massacre at Kesho Hill in Gisenyi province, because witness accounts of his role only came in years later and were marked by contradictions.
About 1,400 Tutsis were killed at Kesho, many of them in a church where women, children and the elderly had taken refuge.
Simon Foreman, a lawyer who represents civil parties in the case, said the charge of complicity “in no way diminishes the responsibility” of Simbikangwa, whom he described as “a cog in a mechanism operated by others”.
Following Simbikangwa’s arrest in Mayotte, France’s courts refused – as they have done systematically – to extradite him to Rwanda for trial there.
Four NGOs are also civil parties to the case, but the only directly affected plaintiff, a Belgium-based Rwandan who holds Simbikangwa responsible for the massacre of her entire family, had her case rejected for lack of evidence.
“There could have been more effort made to find direct victims,” said Patrick Baudoin, a lawyer and the chairman of one of the NGOs involved, the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH).
But he welcomed the fact a trial is taking place, saying: “Finally France is meeting its obligations.” – Rappler.com