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Q&A: France’s landmark Rwandan genocide trial

© FRANCE 3 | Pascal Simbikangwa's arrest in 2008

Text by Armen GEORGIAN

Latest update : 2014-02-04

Former Rwandan army captain Pascal Simbikangwa is being tried by a French court over charges of complicity in the 1994 genocide that left 800,000 people dead. FRANCE 24's Armen Georgian looks at the significance of this landmark trial.

Why is this trial so important to both countries?

It is key first and foremost for Rwandans, who have waited nearly 20 years for a genocide suspect to appear in a French dock. It was only in 2008 – 14 years after the slaughter – that the French Foreign Ministry unambiguously characterised the events as a genocide against the Tutsis. For France, this trial represents a “confrontation between what happened in 1994 and what has been said in France” about the genocide, Rwanda expert and writer Patrick de Saint-Exupéry has told FRANCE 24.

So why have the French and Rwandan narratives been so out of sync?

France’s military and political connections with the Hutu-backed government in 1994 weighed heavily on relations with the Tutsis once Paul Kagame, the former leader of the Tutsi rebellion, swept to power. A politically-tinged legal stand-off followed. In 1998, a French parliamentary inquiry exonerated Paris from any blame in the genocide. Ten years later, a high-level Rwandan inquiry concluded that the French state knew the extermination was being planned, and pointed the finger at senior French figures, including President François Mitterrand, his prime minister, Edouard Balladur, senior diplomat Dominique de Villepin, and Mitterrand’s close advisor, Hubert Védrine. In the meantime, Kigali had severed diplomatic relations with France after a French judge accused President Kagame and his associates of being behind the incident that triggered the killings of their own ethnic group. Rwanda perceived France as promoting a “double genocide” theory – equating the destruction of the Tutsis and murders carried out by Kagame’s Tutsi rebellion.

How did the thaw come about?

Nicolas Sarkozy came to power in 2007, pledging to “ditch the weight of history” in France’s relations with African countries. Both he and his foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, admitted French “mistakes” in 1994. Full diplomatic ties resumed in 2010, and the first French judges were allowed into Rwanda to investigate cases relating to the genocide. France thus slightly improved its image in Africa, even if it stopped short of the apology that some wanted to hear.

What is the likelihood of other suspects being brought to trial in France?

French judicial authorities are conducting a preliminary inquiry into 25 Rwandan genocide suspects living in France. Human rights groups deplore that only four people have been formally placed under investigation in France, pointing to the fact that convictions have been secured in many European nations as well as in Canada and the US. In parallel to national trials, many cases have been dealt with by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, based in Tanzania. France has recently beefed up its war crimes unit, raising hopes of ending the “French exception” on the Rwandan genocide.

 

Date created : 2014-02-04

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