France’s first Rwandan genocide trial ended less than a month short of the 20th anniversary of the slaughter with the conviction of Pascal Simbikangwa.
A Paris criminal court on Friday handed the 54-year-old defendant a 25-year prison sentence. French prosecutors had sought life imprisonment. Simbikangwa was the director of Rwanda’s intelligence service in 1994.
About 800,000 people were killed between April and June 1994 when Hutu extremists massacred Tutsis and moderate Hutus. France provided military training to Rwanda before the genocide as the country’s government sought to repel an invasion of rebel Tutsis from neighboring Uganda.
Rwanda’s current government has said this support has contributed to the delay in prosecuting genocide suspects on French soil.
Judge Olivier Leurent said in the ruling that the defendant’s claims that he had not seen a single corpse during the genocide were designed to hide his participation. Simbikangwa has until Monday next week to decide whether to appeal.
Rwanda has claimed that France blocked the advance of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) in June 1994 and allowed extremist Hutus to escape to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. France has said its mission was humanitarian.
The case against Simbikangwa was originated by the Collectif des Parties Civiles Pour Le Rwanda, an association based in Reims, France, before being taken over by French prosecutors. The association has filed 25 suits against Rwandans. Any further trials arising from these suits would likely take place in France.
Simbikangwa, confined to a wheelchair since a car accident in 1986, was arrested on the French island of Mayotte in the Indian Ocean in 2008. He has been in French prisons ever since.
He told the court he fled to Mayotte because he felt safer on French soil.
Among the witnesses against him was Valerie Bemeriki, who wore a pink convict’s uniform as she spoke by video link from a prison in Kigali. Bemeriki is serving a life sentence for incitement to genocide.
Bemeriki was a journalist at the RTLM radio station set up in Rwanda in August 1993. Simbikangwa’s lawyers acknowledged that their client was one of the station’s shareholders. By the time Bemeriki joined in December 1993, she told the court, the station was already broadcasting messages of ethnic hatred against Tutsis.
The death of then-Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana, a Hutu, when his plane was shot down on April 6, 1994, was the catalyst for the genocide.
The judge said that there were “particularly close intellectual and emotional ties” between Habyarimana and Simbikangwa, who held the RPF responsible for shooting down the plane. The president represented a “symbolic ideal father” for the defendant, Leurent said, citing examinations by psychologists for the trial.
Bemeriki said she saw Simbikangwa on the morning of April 7 at the RTLM radio station and that he told the station’s director to broadcast messages urging the population to hunt down Tutsis.
The journalist said she saw Simbikangwa again on or after April 17 at a roadblock in Kigali giving food, water and weapons to those manning the barrier. Many Tutsis were killed at roadblocks as they sought to escape.
Simbikangwa said that Bemeriki’s account was false and was motivated by her hopes of having her life sentence reduced. He said he was taking food supplies to Tutsis, who were hiding in his house.