The first Rwandan genocide war crime trial to be judged in France is finally under way. Twenty years on, former intelligence chief Pascal Simbikangwa, now aged 54, is accused of inciting, organising and aiding massacres, supplying arms and giving instructions to militia who were killing Tutsi men, women and children. Simbikangwa denies the charges against him.
Jean Simon, a civil plaintiff lawyer with the NGO activist group ‘Survie’ said: “Our only regret is that this comes 20 years afterwards. On the other hand, it will make a difference, even now, because we think this has to be talked about, so those acts are never forgotten, so they are never passed over.”
The roughly three-month genocide in 1994 followed mounting tensions between the ethnic Tutsi minority and the majority Hutus, after the Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana, a Hutu, was killed when his plane was shot down.
It served as a trigger. Civil parties today say Simbikangwa urged reprisals. Estimates of the number slaughtered range between 500,000 and one million people — this organised by the government, across the country. International troops escorted Europeans out while Tutsis were being executed and were left unprotected. Moderate Hutus were also caught in the violence. France, with close military ties, was accused of failing to rein in the Rwandan regime.
The European Court of Human Rights fined France ten years ago for dragging its heels on war crime cases filed since 1995. Just two years ago, France created a special genocide investigation unit. It has studied some 20 legal complaints against alleged perpetrators.
The United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda has also investigated the systematic rape of Tutsi women among the some 100 cases of crimes against humanity judged. Among its 65 convictions, one was of Rwanda’s prime minister in 1994. In Simbikangwa’s trial, the prosecution is expected to call more than 50 people to give evidence in Paris.
After a freeze, French President François Hollande wants to normalise ties with Rwanda, viewed as crucial for maintaining stability in the region. Today, a Rwandan peacekeeping force is deployed in the Central African Republic, which also risks rising sectarian violence.