“Historic” is how the trial is being described in France. Better late than never has been the reaction among the survivors.
Twenty years after the Rwandan genocide, the first trial commenced Tuesday in Paris of one of the dozens of genocide suspects who fled to France after the massacres.
The trial is seen as sending a message that France will no longer serve as a sanctuary for those accused of the slaughter of 800,000 people between April and July 1994. Most of the victims were members of the Tutsi minority, killed by majority Hutus.
For Rwanda’s current government, which is dominated by the Tutsi rebels that overpowered the Hutu extremists and ended the genocide, this day has been a long time coming.
France’s refusal to hand over genocide suspects to Kigali — and reluctance to prosecute them at home under a “universal jurisdiction” rule — drove a deep wedge between the two countries.
France’s footdragging on the issue extended to the UN tribunal on the Rwandan genocide, which is based in Arusha, Tanzania.
The tribunal is scheduled to close later this year. Of the 75 cases it has heard since 1997, France only supplied three.
Critics have linked France’s stonewalling to its close diplomatic and military ties with the Hutu—dominated government that was in power when the killings started a day after the plane of President Juvenal Habyarimana, an ethnic Hutu, was shot down.
France provided training for the Rwandan military for years before the genocide but has denied allegations it trained the Hutu Interahamwe militia that led the killings. France is also accused of having helped some of the killers escape.
Relations hit their lowest point in 2006 when a French investigating magistrate issued arrest warrants for nine aides to Rwandan President Paul Kagame, accusing them of involvement in bringing down Habyarimana’s plane.
Kagame cut off ties with France for three years. It took an admission by ex—president Nicolas Sarkozy in 2009 that France had committed “errors of appreciation” in Rwanda to produce a thaw. But ties between Paris and the former Belgian colony remain cool. Kagame turned down an invitation to a summit in Paris on security in Africa in December.
The trial of Captain Pascal Simbikwanga has raised hope of a warming.
Rwanda’s Justice Minister Johnston Busingye welcomed the start of the hearing as a “good sign.” Twenty—five such cases are being investigated by French magistrates, according to Liberation newspaper. Only four people have been charged so far.
Those who have so far escaped charges include Wenceslas Munyeshyaka, a Catholic priest accused of delivering up Tutsis who took refuge in his church to Hutu militia, and Habyarimana’s widow Agathe, who is also accused of complicity in the genocide.
Munyeshyaka continues his ministry in the French town of Gisors.
Agathe Habyarimana was turned down for asylum in 2007 but continues to live near Paris. In 2011, a French court rejected a request by Kigali for her extradition.