Rwandan found guilty of genocide
Published 14/03/2014 | 22:37
A Paris court has delivered France's first ever conviction for genocide, sentencing a Rwandan former intelligence chief to 25 years in prison over the 1994 killings of at least 500,000 people in the African country.
The landmark trial of 54-year-old Pascal Simbikangwa sets off what could be the first of dozens of French trials into one of the 20th century's greatest atrocities - two decades after it happened.
In a late night verdict after five and a half weeks on trial, he was found guilty of genocide and complicity to crimes against humanity.
While French officialdom was not on trial, critics say France was too supportive of the Rwandan government and for too long turned a blind eye to the genocide.
Simbikangwa proclaimed his innocence and insisted he never even saw any of the bodies that littered the country's roads and towns at the time.
In his final appeal to the jury, Simbikangwa insisted that the "authenticity of my innocence needs no more proof".
Prosecution and defence lawyers noted the seminal nature of the trial, the first in which a French court has decided on a case of genocide.
Critics - many of them French citizens - say authorities from then-president Francois Mitterrand down thought that France's strong support for the Hutu-led Rwandan government was wise. Naively at best, those officials helped some perpetrators to flee Rwanda and others with ties to the genocide lived in France for years unpunished, the critics say.
French prosecutors are investigating about two dozen cases into Rwandans allegedly linked to the genocide, plus several others over alleged rape and complicity in genocide that have not yet identified a defendant.
A former military police officer, Paul Barril, is under investigation for allegedly having struck a deal to provide arms, munitions and training to Rwandan forces at the height of the genocide.
It is not yet clear when or if such cases will go to trial, but some sought to use the Simbikangwa trial to focus attention on the alleged French role in the genocide. Riot police encircled about 10 activists who shouted "France was complicit in Rwanda's genocide" as they tried to demonstrate outside the courthouse.
The proceedings in the Simbikangwa trial were squarely focused on his own case. He appealed to the jury's "conscience," and asked for a prayer for Tutsis and Hutus who died - though he showed no personal remorse.
"The real question is, 'what do I have to gain by saying that I didn't see any bodies?' Nothing," he said. "I ask only to be treated like a human being - no more."
Seated in a wheelchair in a glassed-in defendant's box, Simbikangwa flipped through handwritten notes as he invoked the memory of the "great men who built France" and cited philosophers Descartes and Montesquieu.
The trial was less important for its possible revelations about the genocide - a U.N. tribunal and other courts have already sent dozens of defendants to prison, some for life - than for France's much-delayed reckoning.
A thaw in relations between France and Rwanda and a new genocide unit within the Paris prosecutor's office helped pave the way for the trial. Of the two dozen or so cases linked to the Rwandan genocide being investigated in France, one involves the widow of president Juvenal Habyarimana, an ethnic Hutu. He died when his plane was shot down on April 6 1994, setting of a torrent of reprisal slayings that became the genocide.
Simbikangwa, arrested in 2008 on the French island of Mayotte in the Indian Ocean, was initially accused of complicity in genocide and complicity in war crimes in 1994, but not of personally killing anyone. He has used a wheelchair since being injured in the mid-1980s, before the mass slaughter.