A French appeals court has approved the extradition of two Rwandans wanted at home for their alleged role in the 1994 genocide that claimed about 800,000 lives.
The ruling on Claude Muhayimana, 52, a French citizen since 2010, and Innocent Musabyimana, 41, is not final and can still be challenged.
Although countries such as Canada and Norway have extradited genocide suspects, France has so far refused to do so, fearing they would be denied a fair trial.
But it has sent some to Tanzania to face trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.
The two men’s case will now go up to a higher court for a final ruling after their lawyer, Philippe Meilhac, signalled his intention to appeal.
If the extradition is approved, France would still have to sign an extradition treaty with Rwanda for the pair to be sent back.
The head of the appeals court, Jean Bertholin, told the men their “lives will not be in danger if you return to your country and you will be guaranteed a fair trial”.
Muhayimana is accused of taking part in the massacre of ethnic Tutsis in the western town of Kibuye and Musabyimana in the north-western province of Gisenyi, near the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
The genocide, which pitted the majority Hutu against the minority Tutsi, began after a plane carrying Rwandan former president Juvenal Habyarimana and his Burundian counterpart Cyprien Ntaryamira was shot down as it approached the airport in Kigali, the capital. Both presidents were killed.
Muhayimana and Musabyimana have already appeared in front of appeals courts in Dijon and Rouen which ordered their extradition.
The rulings were quashed by the Court of Cassation – France’s highest appeals court, which rules only on points of law – which sent them on to the Paris appeals court.
French prosecutors said that while the two men could not be extradited on a number of the crimes attributed to them, they could be for those of genocide and crimes against humanity.
Alain Mukuralinda, a spokesman for Rwanda’s prosecutor general, said it was “satisfied” with the ruling.
“If the appeals court judge decided to extradite, that means there is a hope because it means (the judge) based himself on concrete things,” he said.
“This means the investigation carried out in Rwanda was well done,” he said.
Genocide is punishable under a June 19, 1994 law passed in Rwanda. The killings there began in April that year.
Before the genocide, France had been one of Rwanda’s main backers. But in its aftermath, relations between the two countries collapsed.
Paul Kagame, the Rwandan president who came to power as a Tutsi rebel leader after the genocide, accused France of training and arming Hutu militia that perpetrated the genocide – an accusation strenuously denied by Paris.
Diplomatic ties between France and Rwanda were severed in 2006 when a French judge said Kagame and others had orchestrated the assassination of Habyarimana to trigger the bloodshed – an accusation
he denies and which the French courts have since dropped.
But both trade and diplomatic relations have recently strengthened.