Landmark Rwanda genocide trial opens in Paris

Former intelligence chief faces charges of complicity in 1994 genocide that killed more than half a million people.

    A landmark trial of a former Rwandan army captain charged with complicity in the 1994 genocide that left more than 500,000 people dead has begun in a Paris court.

    Pascal Simbikangwa, 54, will face charges of complicity in genocide and of crimes against humanity in a trial that is expected to last seven weeks. He has denied the accusations against him and could face life in prison if found guilty.

    The former intelligence chief, who was left paraplegic after a 1986 car accident, appeared in court in a wheelchair.

    "I was a captain in the Rwandan army then in the intelligence services," Simbikangwa, a small, bald man wearing a brown jacket and white tracksuit bottoms, told the court in an opening statement.

    He is accused of inciting, organising and aiding massacres during the genocide, particularly by supplying arms, instructions and encouragement to Interahamwe Hutu militia who were manning road blocks and killing Tutsi men, women and children. 

    Simbikangwa is being tried under laws adopted in 1996 and 2010 that allow French courts to consider cases of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes committed in Rwanda and other countries. The trial is the first of its kind in France.

    Through the trial, France - Rwanda's former coloniser - is also trying to come 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.

    Bernard Koucher, Rwanda human rights activist

    Activists say they hope the 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 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," Kouchner said in an interview with the AP news agency.

    Under former 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, they say.

    Extradition refusal

    Al Jazeera's Emma Hayward, reporting from Paris, said that many people have been waiting for the trial for a long time.

    "There has been a real sense of frustration in Kigali over France's seeming inability to extradite some of the Rwandan suspects from the genocide," she said.

    "I think many people are hoping that what happens in the courtroom here will throw some light on what happened all those years ago in Rwanda." 

    Interview: Don't blame France for the horrors of Rwanda

    Paris 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 hundreds of thousands dead.

    It ended when Tutsi-led rebels under current President Paul Kagame defeated Hutu fighters.

    Simbikangwa was arrested in 2008 on France's Indian Ocean island of Mayotte, where he had been living under an alias.

    French courts have refused to allow his extradition to Rwanda.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and agencies


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