PARIS – Through a groundbreaking trial, France is at last coming to terms with its much-criticized response to Rwanda’s genocide.
Pascal Simbikangwa, a Rwandan former intelligence chief, is to appear Tuesday in a Paris court for an expected seven-week trial to face charges of complicity in genocide and complicity in crimes against humanity.
France is playing catchup to a U.N. tribunal and other courts that have convicted dozens and shed light on the genocide nearly two decades ago.
Activists hope the Paris trial will remind French leaders of their role and responsibility in Africa — where French power is felt today in Mali and the Central African Republic — and mark the end of an era in which France provided a haven for those who committed atrocities abroad.
In 2004, the European Court for Human Rights based in the eastern French city of Strasbourg condemned the government for taking too long to consider one woman’s legal effort over the Rwanda genocide.
“Finally!” Bernard Kouchner, a humanitarian aid activist in Rwanda at the time and later French foreign minister, said of the Simbikangwa trial. “France played a bad role in this genocide. It didn’t allow justice to do its job, and investigate correctly, or bring to justice those responsible who had fled to France.”
The case is steeped in historical symbolism. In a country whose Nazi collaborationist regime in World War II sent thousands of Jews to their deaths, a Justice Ministry spokeswoman said it is the first trial in France on charges of genocide.
It may be the first of many such trials, made possible under 1990s laws allowing near universal jurisdiction for exceptional crimes. Another 27 cases linked to Rwanda’s genocide await in the Paris court’s war crimes and crimes against humanity unit, including one focusing on the widow of the Rwandan president, whose killing set off the genocide.
“The message of this trial is also that France will no longer be a safe haven for Rwandan suspects of genocide, hopefully, after all these years,” said Clemence Bectarte, a lawyer with the International Federation of Human Rights, one of several civil parties to the state’s case.
The story about why France has taken so long speaks in part to the era of “Francafrique,” a pejorative buzzword for the cushy personal ties that many French businessmen and officials had with African dictators in the postcolonial era.
Under President Francois Mitterrand, France armed and trained Rwandan forces, ignored government abuses and helped some genocide perpetrators flee the country, critics say. After the genocide, successive French governments and the state apparatus repeatedly thwarted attempts to expose France’s role and let into France some people who were suspected to have blood on their hands.
France had close ties to the government of President Juvenal Habyarimana, an ethnic Hutu who died when his plane was shot down on April 6, 1994. His death set off a 100-day bloodbath of reprisal slayings of ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus, leaving at least 500,000 people dead. Some estimates put the death toll as high as 1 million. It ended when Tutsi-led rebels under current President Paul Kagame defeated Hutu extremists.
Simbikangwa is disabled because of a car accident in the 1980s and uses a wheelchair. He was arrested in 2008 on France’s Indian Ocean island of Mayotte, where he had been living under an alias. He is accused of helping arm Hutu soldiers who manned roadway checkpoints in the capital, and instructing them about their part in the slaughter.
If convicted, the 54-year-old Simbikangwa could face a life sentence.
More than 50 witnesses, including journalists, historians, farmers, security guards and former intelligence officials, are expected to be called, nearly all by the prosecution.
French courts refused to allow the extradition of Simbikangwa to Rwanda. “The government of Rwanda is able to influence the outcome of trials, particularly on political cases, or cases that are sensitive,” said Carina Tertsakian, a senior researcher in Human Rights Watch’s Africa division.
The U.N. tribunal on the Rwanda genocide, based in Tanzania, as well as several Western countries have brought dozens of people to justice. The U.N. tribunal will close later this year. Over the years, France handed over three suspects to the tribunal, a dribble compared to the 27 cases now in the Paris court, tribunal documents show.
Ties between France and Rwanda eroded after the genocide. A low point came in November 2006, when a French anti-terrorism magistrate delivered nine arrest warrants for people close to Kagame. Serious French casework resumed after a political thaw, when Kouchner was foreign minister.
France, he said, “wasn’t accused of participating in the genocide, it was accused of making grave political errors. For many years, France prevented justice from being done — let’s be clear — blocked it for reasons of unease and bad memories of its behavior.”