A former Rwandan intelligence chief is about to go on trial in France for his role in the 1994 genocide that killed more than 500,000 people.
Pascal Simbikangwa, 54, will appear on Tuesday in a Paris court for an expected seven-week trial to face charges of complicity in genocide and in crimes against humanity.
Through the trial, France – Rwanda’s former coloniser – is also coming to terms with its much-criticised response to the mass murder.
France played a bad role in this genocide. It did not allow justice to do its job.
France is trying to catch up with a UN 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, 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 city of Strasbourg condemned France for taking too long to consider one woman’s legal effort over the Rwanda genocide.
Bernard Kouchner, a humanitarian aid activist in Rwanda at the time and later French foreign minister, said the Simbikangwa trial is long overdue.
“France played a bad role in this genocide,” Koucher said in an interview with the Associated Press news agency.
“It didn’t allow justice to do its job, and investigate correctly, or bring to justice those responsible who had fled to France.”
In an interview to Al Jazeera, Peter Erlinder, a professor at the William Mitchell College of Law in the US state of Minnesota, said only one side of the genocide story has been told.
Erlinder, author of The Accidental Genocide, said that blaming France for its role in the mass murder “is not historically accurate”.
For France, whose Nazi collaborationist regime in World War II sent thousands of Jews to their deaths, the case is steeped in historical symbolism.
A Justice Ministry spokeswoman described the Simbikangwa case as the first trial in France on charges of genocide.
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, while letting into France some suspected to have blood on their hands.
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France had close ties to the government of President Juvenal Habyarimana, an ethnic Hutu who died when his aircraft 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 hundreds of thousands dead.
It ended when Tutsi-led rebels under current President Paul Kagame defeated Hutu extremists.
Simbikangwa, who is disabled because of a car accident in the 1980s and uses a wheelchair, 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 Kigali, and instructing them about their part in the slaughter.
If convicted, Simbikangwa could face a life sentence.
In telephone interviews, his lawyers said they will argue for an acquittal, and fear that the trial will be lopsided, in part because of the difficulty in finding anyone to speak in their client’s defense.
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.