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Africa

Rwandan leader's widow bailed in genocide case

Video by Mark Thompson

Text by Katherine THOMPSON

Latest update : 2010-03-05

Agathe Habyarimana, widow of assassinated Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana, was arrested in Paris early Tuesday and subsequently released on bail. Habyarimana is accused by Rwandan authorities of helping to plan the country’s 1994 genocide.

Agathe Habyarimana, widow of assassinated Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana, was arrested at her home in a Paris suburb by French authorities early Tuesday. The president’s widow stands accused of helping to plan the country's 1994 genocide in which 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus died over a 100-day period.

Habyarimana, who has lived in France for several years, was arrested under an international arrest warrant issued by the Rwandan government. She was subsequently released on bail (referred to as ‘judicial review’ in France), the state prosecutor said.

Her arrest comes just a week after French President Nicolas Sarkozy flew into Rwanda to meet with his counterpart Paul Kagame. Her lawyer Phillipe Meilhac alleges that there is a direct link between Sarkozy’s visit and her arrest Tuesday.

Shortly after she was released on bail, Meilhac spoke to FRANCE 24. He said, “My client will have a meeting with the Prosecutor General of Paris in a few weeks. He has requested a more complete extradition dossier from the Rwandans.”

‘Lady Genocide’

‘Lady Genocide’, as Habyarimana has been called by some, was regarded by many to have wielded much influence over her husband, and was a central figure in the powerful ‘akazu’ Hutu clique who are generally understood to have been responsible for the brutal slaughter.

The horrific genocide in Rwanda began just hours after a plane carrying president Juvenal Habyarimana was shot down by a surface-to-air missile as it approached the capital, Kigali, on April 6, 1994. The frenzied massacre that followed is thought to have been pre-planned due to the speed with which it commenced after the plane was downed.

The slaughter only stopped when now-President Paul Kagame's Tutsi rebel group, the Rwandan Patriotic Front, toppled the Hutu extremists.

'It is important that she is brought to justice'

Rwandan Justice Minister Tharcisse Karugarama welcomed the news of her arrest, telling AFP, "Agathe Habyarimana is one of the main masterminds behind the genocide ... it is important she should be brought before the law.”

David Russell, the director of SURF Survivors Fund (a group which helps survivors of the Rwandan genocide), told FRANCE 24 in a telephone interview from Rwanda, “At last, justice is being done. We are delighted that Habyarimana has been arrested. For the victims, they were always frightened that she might come back, so today is a good day. However, there are more of them hiding in France, and I want to see them brought to justice.”

Despite this positive step, there is still a lot of bad feeling. Theodore Simburudali, the head of the survivors' association Ibuka, told AFP, "If Agathe Kanziga has been arrested that's good news. But why did France wait for so long? ... We've seen that in France genocidaires are arrested today and released tomorrow. For survivors it's just play-acting. Justice needs to be done."

Habyarimana had been seeking political asylum in France, but lost her final appeal in October. The Paris court ruled there were "serious reasons to suspect" she was involved "either as an instigator or accomplice" in the genocide.

Despite this arrest, it is as yet unclear whether she will be extradited to Rwanda as no such treaty currently exists with France. Russell, however, dismissed this as a detail, stating that the survivors would be happy just to know, “that she is off the streets, whether that is in France, Rwanda or even the USA.”

A hugely symbolic act

Sixteen years after the Rwandan genocide, President Nicolas Sarkozy’s administration is seeking to improve France’s complicated relations with the central African country.

Diplomatic ties between the two were severed in 2006 by Rwandan President Paul Kagame, whom a French judge accused of involvement in the assassination of former President Juvenal Habyarimana.

Kigali in turn called France into question for its alleged role in the genocide. Rwanda's government and genocide survivor organisations, including Russell, have often accused France of training and arming the militias and former government troops who led the genocide. Rights groups have also put forth that France remains a “haven” for the perpetrators of the genocide.

However, Sarkozy extended the olive branch to his counterpart Paul Kagame on a state visit to Rwanda in late February, admitting that France had made "mistakes" at the time of the genocide, though stopping short of a full apology.

In what now appears to be a precursor to Habyarimana’s arrest, Sarkozy said while in Rwanda: ''We want those responsible for the genocide to be found and punished…. We have refused to grant political asylum to genocide fugitives.”

Russell told FRANCE 24 that after this highly symbolic arrest, “France is no longer a safe haven for them. France has seen the light. It is finally honouring its international obligations.”

Date created : 2010-03-02

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