France plans to hold its first trial resulting from the Rwandan genocide as the 20th anniversary of the attempt to eliminate the country’s ethnic Tutsi population approaches, the lawyer who will prosecute the case said.
Pascal Simbikangwa, who headed Rwanda’s intelligence agency in 1994, is set to stand trial later this year or early in 2014, Simon Foreman, a lawyer with Soulez Lariviere & Associes, said in an interview at his office in Paris.
About 800,000 people were killed between April and June 1994 when Hutu extremists massacred Tutsis and moderate Hutus. Rwanda’s government accuses Simbikangwa of organizing and arming militias, torturing Tutsis and preparing lists of people to be killed. Simbikangwa’s lawyers Alexandra Bourgeot and Epstein Fabrice said yesterday that their client denies all the allegations against him. They declined to comment further.
The approaching anniversary makes the issue of the genocide suspects in France “impossible to ignore,” Foreman said on Jan 18. France’s judiciary would “hate to reach that anniversary” without a trial, he said.
France provided military training to Hutu-led Rwanda before the genocide as the country’s government sought to repel an invasion of rebel Tutsis from neighboring Uganda. Rwanda’s current government says this support has contributed to the delay in prosecuting genocide suspects on French soil.
Foreman will prosecute the case on behalf of an association of civil plaintiffs, the Collectif des Parties Civiles pour le Rwanda, based in the French city of Reims.
“I am a doubting Thomas,” the collectif president, Alain Gauthier, said in an interview in Reims about prospects for a trial. “When I can see it and feel it, I will believe it.” Gauthier’s Rwandan wife Dafroza lost her mother and other family members during the genocide. The collectif first filed a case against Simbikangwa in February 2009.
Rwanda broke ties with France in 2006 when a French judge issued arrest warrants for associates of current Rwandan President Paul Kagame for shooting down a plane carrying former President Juvenal Habyarimana in April 1994. Kagame denies any role in the incident, which was the catalyst for the genocide. The countries patched up their differences when former French President Nicolas Sarkozy visited Rwanda in February 2010.
“We have seen a little from the French and we are waiting to see what this implies,” Rwanda’s Justice Minister Tharcisse Karugarama said in a telephone interview from Kigali. “They should be transferring genocide suspects back in Rwanda to face trial, if not they should be tried wherever they are held.”
In September 2011, France rejected a request by Rwanda to extradite Agathe Habyarimana, the wife of the late president, whom the Rwandan government accuses of playing a part in the genocide.
“There was certainly a blockage caused by the breakdown in relations” between the countries, Foreman said. “France and Rwanda have had a tough relationship. There may be traces of that in the judicial system. There is a lack of trust.”
French judges investigating cases against genocide suspects couldn’t get authorization to travel to Rwanda when diplomatic relations were severed, or get relief from their regular workload, Foreman said. Visits by judges to Rwanda have become frequent since France created a genocide investigation unit in 2011, he said.
Including Simbikangwa, the collectif has 25 cases outstanding in France arising from the Rwandan genocide. Foreman is one of eight lawyers that work on the cases for little or no payment. Foreman said the trial is likely to lead to further trials in France.
French Justice Ministry spokesman Pierre Rance declined to confirm that Simbikangwa’s trial will take place. All steps in the continuing investigation would have to be completed before any trial, he said in an e-mailed response to questions.
To contact the reporter on this story: David Whitehouse in Paris.