France is opening charges against Pascal Simbikangwa and other Rwandans accused of war crimes in its courts. The court alleges former intelligence chief Simbikangwa (pictured) with crimes against humanity. He is accused of orchestrating the 1994 genocide that claimed the lives of 800,000 Rwandans.
One of the main charges against Simbikangwa is that he whipped up tribal hatred through his country’s radio and television stations, which the prosecution says he helped finance. Simbikangwa denies the charges.
Simbiakangwa was a career army officer until a 1986 automobile accident left him a paraplegic. He then transferred to his country’ s intelligence service, and became a close confidant of then president Juvenal Habyarimana.
Simbikangwa is charged with complicity in genocide and in crimes against humanity. He risks a life sentence with a mandatory 22 years behind bars. He was arrested in hiding on the French Indian Ocean island of Mayotte in 2008.
France lags behind neighbors like Belgium, Switzerland and Germany that have already brought suspects living on their soil to justice. France has the dubious reputation as a safe haven for Rwandan war criminals. In 2004, the European Court of Human Rights underscored this reputation when it fined the country for not actively pursuing war crimes cases.
According to former French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner, who made several humanitarian trips to Rwanda, the French have a trait for “ill-founded self-certainties” that engulfed “the administration, the army and the diplomatic corps.”
However, the situation in France is changing. According to a 1996 French law, Rwandans suspected of genocide and other war crimes, like Pascal Simbikangwa, can be tried in a French court. France developed a special investigations unit in 2012 to deal with suspected war criminals.
Victims’ loved ones have long been calling for investigation, and are happy to see the case go to trial. Dafroza and Alain Gauthier have sought to bring charges against suspected accomplices in the genocide. They are parties to the case through their Rwanda victims’ group. Alain Gauthier believes justice is the only way to secure dignity for the victims.
The charges are based on a killing spree that lasted approximately three months. The 1994 genocide committed by the Hutus targeted mostly Tutsis, but moderate Hutus were also caught in the wave of violence. Hutus blamed their Tutsi neighbors for the fatal downing of a plane carrying Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana. Most of those killed were mere members of the Tutsi tribe.
France froze relations with Rwanda when the African nation’s president, Paul Kagame, accused France of training Hutu militants. France denies the accusation.
However, France did train the Rwandan army prior to the 1994 massacre.
Simbikangwa’s war crimes trial represents a major step in a fragile rapprochement France and Rwanda. French diplomats have stated privately that an acquittal will damage reconciliation between the two countries. France believes that a stable Rwanda is a cornerstone to overall stability in the region. More than 50 witnesses are expected to be called to testify in the French court about the war crimes charges against Pascal Simbikangwa, mostly by the prosecution. A verdict is expected by mid-March, though the defense is already planning an appeal.
By Ian Erickson