The landmark trial of a former Rwandan army captain charged with complicity in the genocide that left 800,000 dead opened yesterday in Paris, the first of its kind in France.
The trial of Pascal Simbikangwa — who denies all accusations against him — is being closely watched in France, which has long stood accused of failing to rein in the Rwandan regime at the time of the 100-day genocide in 1994.
The 54-year-old defendant appeared in court in a wheelchair after a 1986 car accident that left him a paraplegic. He faces life in prison.
Simbikangwa, 54, was arrested in October 2008 on the French Indian Ocean island of Mayotte, where he had been living in hiding for three years.
He is accused of inciting, organizing and aiding massacres during the genocide, particularly by supplying arms and instructions to militia who were manning road blocks and killing Tutsi men, women and children.
“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 a brief opening statement.
After his arrest, France refused to extradite him to Rwanda, as it has done in previous cases, and decided to try him under laws that allow French courts to consider cases of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes committed in other countries.
The trial is expected to last six to eight weeks and, in a rare situation for France, will be filmed for posterity, with recordings available once the case is concluded.
Rwandan Justice Minister Johnston Busingye welcomed the opening of the trial.
“It is history being made. We have always wondered why it has taken 20 years ... it is late, but it is a good sign,” he said.
Simbikangwa acknowledges being close to the regime of former Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana, a Hutu, whose assassination on April 6, 1994, unleashed the genocide, in which most of the victims were members of the minority Tutsi community.
However, he denies participating in or organizing massacres.
He was initially charged with genocide and crimes against humanity, but the charges were downgraded to complicity.
His lawyers have attacked the prosecution’s case as being based purely on unchallenged witness accounts.
They say his trial is the result of pressure on the judiciary against the background of a rapprochement between France and the current government in Rwanda following three years (2006 to 2009) during which diplomatic relations were broken off.
“There is pressure from the Rwanda authorities on France and monstrous pressure from the civil parties who initiated the case,” attorneys Alexandra Bourgeot and Fabrice Epstein said.
They said Simbikangwa was being made a “scapegoat” for the genocide on the approach of its 20th anniversary.