Paris court 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, on Friday, 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 5½ weeks on trial, he was found guilty of genocide and complicity to crimes against humanity. It wasn’t immediately clear whether Simbikangwa’s lawyers would appeal.
While French officialdom wasn’t on trial, critics say France was too supportive of 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 on Friday morning, 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 haven’t 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 of 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. They didn’t have the proper permit, and were escorted away, officials said.
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.