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French court probes ex-Rwanda spy chief at genocide trial

Text by David GORMEZANO

Latest update : 2014-02-06

Slouching in his wheelchair in a tan leather jacket, the slight defendant in a Paris court on Wednesday did not, at first glance, look like a man capable of complicity in genocide and war crimes in Rwanda – as the charge sheet stated.

Nor did the discourse at the start of the second day of a historic trial – the first-ever court proceeding in France to deal with the 1994 Rwandan genocide, which killed nearly 800,000 people – seem to match the gravity of the charges.

Mumbling into the microphone, his voice sometimes dropping to barely audible levels, former Rwandan intelligence chief Pascal Simbikangwa seemed determined to obscure a basic fact that should have been settled on the first day of the trial: his identity.

Wednesday’s session opened with Simbikangwa’s own lawyers asking their client to state his name, date and place of birth – after he subjected the court to a two-hour verbal rigmarole the previous day.

Since he was arrested in 2008 on the French island of Mayotte in the Indian Ocean, the dreaded former Rwandan army captain and intelligence chief has had many names, including Senyamuhara Safari, according to court documents.

After trying “Pascal Safari” and “David Safari,” the defendant finally acknowledged Wednesday morning that his name is Pascal Simbikangwa – although he admitting to using several aliases.

"What he wants to do is confuse the court," explained Dafroza Gauthier, co-founder with her husband Alain of the Collective Civil Parties for Rwanda (CPCR). Gauthier, who says she lost at least 80 family members in the genocide, has worked for more than a decade to bring such a case to French courts and the CPCR is one of several civil parties supporting the state’s case.

But beneath the defendant’s obfuscating antics lies a central precept that the court will have to establish in the weeks to come: who is Simbikangwa and what was his role, if any, in one of the worst human atrocities committed in modern history? For the survivors and loved ones of the genocide victims, the trial in France could also provide an insight into the personality of a shadowy man whose name still evokes bitter memories back home in Rwanda.

Simbikangwa has denied the charges of complicity in war crimes and genocide in Rwanda.

‘Addicted to information’

Details of Simbikangwa’s opaque life began to emerge in court on Wednesday as the interrogation revolved around the functions and positions occupied by the former captain in the presidential guard who went on to head the intelligence services.

In his testimony, Simbikangwa described how he was a “man of action” before a 1986 auto accident rendered him a paraplegic. Two years later, he started another chapter of his life in the Rwandan intelligence service.

Consigned to a desk job, Simbikangwa told the court that he gradually became "addicted to information” and set up a network of informants tasked with infiltrating the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) – the predominantly Tutsi group that was then fighting the government of the Hutu president, Juvenal Habyarimana.

According to Simbikangwa, intelligence gathered by his network was sent directly to Habyarimana, “a man of peace who wanted to bring Hutus and Tutsis together”.

It was the death of Habyarimana – a dictatorial leader who was killed when his plane was shot down in April 1994 – that sparked the Rwandan genocide.

But in his testimony, Simbikangwa was vague about his position in the SCR, the Rwandan intelligence agency, insisting that he was a “simple agent” and was then appointed director of the intelligence service.

In April 1992, when the RPF and government entered peace negotiations and Rwanda committed to multiparty democracy, Simbikangwa claimed he was sidelined by his Tutsi supervisor and lived until 1994 in a "small house” where the self-confessed “lover of De Gaulle, Chateaubriand and La Fontaine” wrote books.

When asked if he was present during interrogations, Simbikangwa replied, “No, I 've never been present during interrogations.”

When a lawyer for the civil parties pressed the issue, demanding, “You were in charge of intelligence, but you were not interested in hearing suspects?” Simbikangwa quipped, “No, I synthesised reports. This is a normal compartmentalisation of duties in the secret services."

‘A simple editor of intelligence briefs’

Simbikangwa denied being a member or even a sympathiser of the MRND (National Revolutionary Movement for Democracy) – the predominantly Hutu party founded by Habyarimana. He also questioned witness accounts of him singing songs calling on Hutus to “kill them all” at cabarets crammed with MRND members, dismissing the accounts as the work of “liars, victims of indoctrination or fabulists”.

When questioned about a 1993 interview he gave to the Paris-based group, Reporters Without Borders, wherein Simbikangwa claimed he had the power to summon and arrest journalists, Simbikangwa attempted to call the existence of the interview into doubt, adding, “I could have reasoned with the journalists... they were adrift. In France, journalists make many mistakes, but you know, in Rwanda, they can barely write their names.”

At one stage, a visibly irritated prosecutor, Bruno Sturlese, demanded, “How do you explain the fact that a simple editor of intelligence briefs had a personal escort composed of two members of the presidential guard?”

“You do not know the Rwandan context,” replied Simbikangwa. “We were easily killed at that time.”

By the end of the morning session, Dafroza Gauthier, who has dedicated a decade of her life to seeing men like Simbikangwa brought to justice, noted that the former Rwandan army captain was a “smart and calculating man” who exemplified “the Habyarimana system”.

Simbikangwa was arrested by French border police in 2008 for involvement in trafficking fake identity papers. He 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 on homicide charges. 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 Gauthiers brought together a group of plaintiffs that filed complaints against 24 Rwandans living in France who were suspected of actively participating in the 1994 genocide. 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 religious circles.

But CPCR lawyer Simon Foreman insisted that Simbikangwa’s defense "based on denial and lies" would not hold for long because "the evidence is strong and the four-year investigation can clearly demonstrate Pascal Simbikangwa’s responsibility in the genocide”.

The first witnesses are likely to be called to the bar starting February 17.


Date created : 2014-02-06


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