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French bank BNP Paribas accused of complicity in Rwandan genocide

© Philippe Huguen, AFP

Video by Laurent BERSTECHER

Text by Tracy MCNICOLL

Latest update : 2017-06-30

France’s largest bank is facing serious accusations after three NGOs on Thursday said they filed legal action against BNP Paribas alleging “complicity in genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity” during Rwanda’s 1994 genocide.

The suit alleges Banque Nationale de Paris (BNP), as the bank was known before its merger with Paribas in 2000 to become BNP Paribas, “participated in financing the purchase of 80 tonnes of arms that served to perpetrate the genocide” despite the fact, it claims, “that the bank could not have doubted the genocidal intentions of the authorities of the country for which it authorized the transfer” of funds. The groups note that a United Nations arms embargo was in effect at the time.

The genocide in the tiny central African country claimed 800,000 lives, mostly from Rwanda’s ethnic Tutsi minority, between April and July 1994.

The three NGOs leading the charge are Sherpa, an anti-corruption group that defends victims of economic crimes, Ibuka France, an association that defends survivors of the genocide, and the Collective of Civil Parties for Rwanda (CPCR), a group based in France that pursues claims against genocide suspects. Sherpa earned headlines recently when it filed a lawsuit against the Swiss-French cement giant LafargeHolcim alleging the company financed Islamic State group in Syria.

In their complaint against BNP, the NGOs claim the bank “authorised two transfers of funds [totalling more than $1.3 million] on June 14 and 16, 1994, from the account that the National Bank of Rwanda held with BNP towards an account at the Swiss bank UBP” held under the name of Willem Tertius Ehlers. The group’s complaint says Ehlers, a South African national and former secretary to South African leader P.W. Botha, owned an arms brokerage firm called Delta Aero at the time.

The suit claims Ehlers and Rwandan Hutu colonel Théoneste Bagosora concluded an arms sale in the Seychelles on the day after the second transfer of funds. It says the weapons were officially purchased by Zaire, as the Democratic Republic of Congo was then known, but with two Rwandans in the delegation that travelled to the Seychelles. The groups cite testimony given by Bagosora himself before the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda describing the transfer of weapons from the Seychelles to Goma, on Zaire’s border with Rwanda, and then into Rwanda.

Bagosora, now 70, is serving a 35-year sentence for crimes against humanity in connection with the genocide.

For its part, BNP Paribas has yet to respond to the substance of the allegations. “We have learned through the media about a lawsuit being filed,” a BNP Paribas spokesperson told news agencies on Thursday. “At this time, we do not have sufficient information about it to enable us to comment on it.”

A separate complaint was filed on Wednesday against "X", or persons unknown in the French legal parlance, for “complicity in genocide and complicity in crimes against humanity” during the Rwandan genocide by Survie, a French group that “denounces all forms of French neo-colonial intervention in Africa”.

Survie wants an inquiry to be opened. “There are strong suspicions about the involvement of French politicians and military personnel in the cooperation with the Rwandan government before, during and after the genocide,” said Safya Akorri, Survie’s lawyer, according to Le Parisien, which alongside Radio France broke the news about the complaint.” It is up to the judiciary, and not civil society, to help in understanding their role and establishing possible penal responsibility.”

Survie had filed a prior complaint that was dismissed last fall.

In the latest issue of the French quarterly XXI, editor-in-chief Patrick de Saint-Exupéry looks at similar allegations as relayed by an unnamed civil servant who had access to still-classified French archives from the time. Saint-Exupéry’s piece accuses the Elysée Palace of ordering the re-armament of Hutu authorities in the wake of the genocide. His source claims a memo to that effect was signed by Hubert Védrine, the palace’s secretary general at the time under late Socialist president François Mitterrand.

“For more than 20 years, associations, historians, the French judiciary have been asking for access to these archives. For 20 years, these archives have rested, ferociously protected,” Saint-Exupéry told FRANCE 24’s French language Journal de l’Afrique. “So it obviously begs the question today of the opening of these archives and I believe that today is the issue.”

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)

Date created : 2017-06-29

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