A French court on Tuesday begins hearing the landmark trial of a former Rwandan army captain charged with complicity in the 1994 genocide that left 800,000 people dead.
Initially arrested for carrying fake travel documents in the French islands known collectively as Mayotte in 2008, Captain Pascal Simbikangwa, who is accused of involvement in genocide and crimes against humanity in Rwanda, will appear in a Paris court on February 4.
It is the first time in France that someone allegedly linked to the massacre of nearly 800,000 mainly Tutsi men, women and children will have to appear before a jury.
Since 1996, French courts have had the right to issue sentences for criminal acts committed abroad if the presumed criminal is present on French soil. But, in 2004, France was condemned by the European Court of Human Rights for the slowness of the legal procedures targeting perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide. Some see that “slowness” as symptomatic of France’s resistance to re-opening old wounds.
A former supporter of the Hutu regime that perpetrated the Rwandan genocide, France has long been accused of providing a safe haven for those who committed atrocities in the African state.
Two decades after the massacres, the French legal system is finally pulling out all the stops.
The trial is expected to last eight weeks, with 53 witnesses testifying. The proceedings will be filmed and broadcast on big screens in various rooms throughout the court house.
Trials of other individuals thought to have been involved in the genocide could take place in France in the coming years.
Simbikangwa, a ‘Hutu Power’ fanatic
Simbikangwa was born in 1959 in Rambura, in northwestern Rwanda. The former intelligence officer has said he is related to Juvénal Habyarimana, the Hutu president whose 1994 assassination sparked the genocide.
For Rwandan legal authorities, who called for his extradition before France decided to bring him to trial, Simbikwanga is one of the organisers of the genocide. He has rejected the allegation.
Wheelchair-bound since a car accident in 1986, Simbikangwa was a proponent of “Hutu Power”, an ideology promoted by Hutu extremists, and was in charge of spying on the opposition’s press outlets. He also contributed to the creation of “Radio Mille Collines”, where, for years, he voiced virulent anti-Tutsi propaganda on the air, encouraging those who would carry out the massacre against Tutsi “cockroaches”.
But Simbikangwa is accused of “complicity”, rather than participation, in the genocide. The court will hear testimony regarding his role in personally furnishing weapons and instructions to militiamen who identified and executed Tutsis.
Controversially, he will not be judged for a crime committed in his hometown: the massacre at Kesho Hill, where 1,500 Tutsis were butchered on April 8 by soldiers and militamen, including women and children who were burned alive in a church.
After their investigation, French judges ended up abandoning the charges of actively participating in the genocide, concluding that testimonies about his presence and his role were “contradictory”.
The past catches up with Simbikangwa
In July 1994, when the Hutu Power movement was ousted by Tutsi rebels of the Rwandan Patriotic Front, Simbikangwa fled with his family, heading for Zaire, known today as the Democratic Republic of Congo. His mother and his wife died in a refugee camp near the Rwandan border; he continued on to Kenya and Cameroon, eventually sneaking into the French Indian Ocean territory of Mayotte in 2005, where he tried to blend in with the many Rwandans living in the capital, Mamoudzou.
In 2008, Simbikangwa was arrested by French border police for involvement in trafficking fake identity papers. The former captain was accused of fabricating more than 3,000 documents and pocketing 80,000 euros.
Soon enough, the police found out who exactly they had taken into custody. In 2009, Mayotte’s attorney general called for a formal investigation into Simbikangwa for homicide. He was subsequently transferred to a prison in mainland France.
It would take four years for lawyers in the “crimes against humanity” department of the public prosecutor’s office to prepare the case against Simbikangwa. During that time, the French-Rwandan couple Alain and Dafroza Gauthier founded a group of plaintiffs that filed complaints against 24 Rwandans living in France, who were suspected of actively participating in the massacre of Tutsis in 1994. The suspects – also sought by Interpol, Rwanda, and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda – belonged to an “elite” that was able to flee Rwanda with the help of contacts in political, medical and Catholic circles.
In France, the case of Wenceslas Munyeshyaka, a priest in Normandy, was emblematic. A religious figure who walked around with a bullet-proof vest among Hutu soldiers in Kigali during the massacres, Munyeshyaka has been working in France since 1995. He is now under investigation and awaiting his trial.
Elsewhere, things have moved more quickly. Trials of Rwandans accused of participating in the genocide have already taken place in Belgium, the Netherlands, Canada, the US, Finland, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland.
According to Patrick Baudouin, the president of the International Federation for Human Rights, “political will was long lacking” in France, as the French-led “Opération Turquoise” was an episode many French political leaders would rather forget. The French peacekeeping force, positioned on the Rwandan border, had let Hutu members of the Armed Forces of Rwanda cross the border into Zaire after partaking in the massacre of Tutsis.
Furthermore, according to Belgian researcher Olivier Lanotte, the Rwandan army, secretly planning the massacre, swelled from 5,500 to 35,000 men between 1990 and 1994 thanks to French support – another painful scar on France’s political and moral conscience.
Date created : 2014-02-04