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French court sentences Rwandan army captain for 1994 genocide

© AFP

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2014-03-14

A French court on Friday sentenced a former Rwandan army captain to 25 years in prison for genocide and complicity in crimes against humanity in the first-ever trial in France over the 1994 atrocity.

Pascal Simbikangwa was found guilty of perpetrating genocide and complicity in crimes against humanity in the 1994 Rwanda atrocity, which left nearly 800,000 dead – mostly Tutsi men, women and children.

The landmark verdict came just weeks ahead of the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, the last major crimes against humanity case of the 20th century.

Simbikangwa, a 54-year-old paraplegic who has been wheelchair-bound since a 1986 car accident, had pleaded not guilty to the charges.

The Hutu former army captain was initially charged for complicity in the 1994 genocide.
But earlier this week, the prosecutor asked the jury to declare him guilty of “genocide” – and not only of complicity – citing the testimonies heard from around 50 witnesses during a complex and often harrowing six-week trial.

Repairing Franco-Rwandan relations

The trial, which began on February 4, was closely monitored in France, which has long been accused of failing to reign in the Rwandan regime in 1994 and subsequently providing a safe haven for those who committed the atrocities.

Rwandan President Paul Kagame, the Tutsi head of the Rwandan Patriotic Front who came to power after the genocide, has accused France of training and arming the Hutu militias who were the main force behind the slaughter.

The Simbikangwa trial comes at a time of a political and economic rapprochement between Rwanda and France.

Two decades on, the French legal system has now pulled out all the stops. The trial was filmed – which is rare in France – and recordings will be available once the case is concluded.

Trials of other individuals thought to have been involved in the genocide could also take place in France. About 20 cases have been filed in Paris against other Rwandans living in France and suspected of being accessories to the genocide.

Similar trials have already taken place in Belgium, Sweden and Germany with guilty verdicts.

‘Hutu Power’ on the radio

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 consistently rejected the allegation.

Prosecution witnesses maintained that 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 Télevision des 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”.

An ex-journalist now in prison for inciting violence via her radio programme testified that Simbikangwa was a regular visitor to “Radio Télévision des Mille Collines”.

During the trial, lawyers for the former army captain sought to discredit witnesses, saying some had been coerced or that they were prisoners hoping to win shorter sentences.
Watched by plaintiffs and relatives of the victims of the genocide, the court learned that Simbikangwa in fact saved some Tutsis.

But witnesses -- even those he saved -- have painted a picture of a man who was closely involved in the genocide, playing a lead role in checkpoints that identified Tutsis, stockpiling weapons at his home and distributing them.

From military man to man on the run

The story of Simbikangwa’s life, from an influential Rwandan military official to a man on the run, straddles three continents. In July 1994, shortly after the genocide, 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. He eventually snuck 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.  

Date created : 2014-03-14

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