France and Rwanda's genocide: a long wait

The belated trial of a suspected genocidaire in Paris highlights the complex political relationship between Rwanda and France. It also reflects problems in the hard road to international justice, says Andrew Wallis.

Andrew Wallis
20 February 2014

The media scrum on the first day of the trial of a wheelchair-bound Rwandan genocide suspect at the Palais de Justice in Paris was both unexpected and unsettling. At first because of the intensity of the attention: the prisoner in the glass-panelled dock, 54 year-old Captain Pascal Simbikangwa - Rwanda's former director of intelligence - had managed to knock from the front pages of Parisian newspapers the plight of Francois Hollande’s government, the president’s troubled personal life and Sochi's winter Olympics.

Then the scale of what this meant hit: twenty years after the genocide in Rwanda in 1994 that left one million people dead, at last France's legal system was managing to put before judge and jury a suspect charged with complicity in the killings. Not since Klaus Barbie  (the Nazi "butcher of Lyon") appeared in the dock in 1987, and the Nazi militiaman Paul Touvier in 1994, has France tried a suspect accused of crimes against humanity. Such is the significance of the proceedings, scheduled to last for six weeks, that they are being filmed for posterity (only the fifth time that this has been done).

For a white-haired, bespectacled retired schoolteacher called Alain Gauthier in particular, the opening day is one of undoubted triumph - as reflected in the mob of camera-crews and journalists that surrounded him. Gauthier, whose Rwandan Tutsi wife Daphrose lost dozens of her family in the genocide, has spent the years since tracking down alleged genocidaire who fled to France in the aftermath. Gauthier has brought many lawsuits against those he has identified, and for his efforts has been compared to the Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal. He and four other civil groups assisted in bringing the case against Simbikangwa. In a voice trembling with emotion and relief, he told the media that this court case is above all about bringing long overdue justice for the survivors and victims.

Indeed, Pascal Simbikangwa’s  trial raises great questions beyond the guilt or innocence of one man (who has been in custody since 2008, when he was arrested on the French Caribbean island of Mayotte where - under an assumed identity - he was involved in a lucrative trade in selling fake passports). It reaches to the heart of the French political and judicial approach to the disturbing subject of a genocide from which the country's establishment has long attempted to dissociate itself. Under Francois Mitterrand's presidency (1981-95), France was the leading backer - financial, military and political - of the regime of Rwandan dictator Juvénal Habyariamana in the years before the genocide. That support continued even as there were consistent reports from inside the country of massacres and horrific human-rights abuses.

Even as the genocide of the Tutsis was taking place in the summer months of 1994, Mitterrand officially welcomed two members of the regime to the Elysée palace, and continued to supply arms to the same Rwandan forces that it had long trained and financed. In the genocide's last days, Hutu extremist operatives accused of organising and perpetrating the killing fled to the south of the country then under the control of the dubiously "humanitarian" French intervention called Opération Turquoise. The genocidaires were in a hurry to escape following defeat by the Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF) of Paul Kagame; French forces refused to arrest or disarm these individuals, and many later were granted permanent residence in France.

The legacy of these years has been heavy. The relationship between France and the Kagame government in the two decades since 1994 has been a mix of deep-seated ambivalence and little-hidden mutual antipathy. In 2006, there was a complete break on the publication of the Bruguière report, with its intensely disputed charges about the plane crash that killed Habyarimana and triggered the genocide. In 2008, Rwanda hit back with its own Mucyo commission report, detailing the Mitterrand’s government alleged complicity in the genocide (see "Rwanda: a step towards truth", 21 January 2012). 

Cases against genocide suspects were opened in France as early as 1995, yet they are still to reach trial nineteen years later. On repeated occasions, suspects have been allowed to continue at liberty, and granted residency and citizenship; yet just as repeatedly, French diplomatic figures have denied that political considerations were blocking either trials in France (under universal jurisdiction) or the extradition of suspects to Rwanda. The state has shown a marked reluctance to investigate or take the crimes seriously, so it has been left to Alain Gauthier and other civil groups to lead the way in pressing for justice.

French courts have given many reasons to explain why Rwandan doctors, academics, priests and senior military figures accused of genocide, extermination, murder and rape could not face justice. Some court rulings found against extradition to Rwanda on the grounds that the accused would not get a fair trial; or because Rwanda's genocide law was passed in 1996, and the absence of such a law before then meant suspects should not face trial there for a crime that did not then exist.

True, in June 1999, the Paris appeals court decided that alleged genocidaire could be tried in France. In 2004, however, the European Court for Human Rights - acting in response to complaints from survivors - condemned the slowness of France's judicial system in bringing theCatholic priest Wenceslas Munyeshyaka to trial. Today, nineteen years after the opening of a French judicial investigation against him for rape and mass murder, he is free and working in a Catholic parish in the pretty Normandy town of Gisours. "Investigations" continue.

Another prominent case is that of Agathe Habyarimana, prominent genocide suspect and widow of Rwanda's former president. In 2007, her claim for refugee status had been refused in a series of judgments by the French asylum commission (OFPRA) and then the appeal and supreme court. In a blistering verdict the former ruled that she was "at the heart of the genocidal regime responsible for the preparation and execution of the genocide that occurred in Rwanda during the year 1994." Since then, however, Mme Habyarimana has continued to live in an affluent Parisian suburb untouched by the judicial process, something Gauthier describes as "scandalous".

Two factors subsequently contributed to a modest unblocking of the situation. The first is a tenuous thaw in political relations, which seems to have lifted the judicial deadlock to a limited extent. The then French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, made a long-awaited visit to Rwanda in February 2010, the first in two decades by a French head of state; soon after, Agathe Habyarimana, was arrested in Paris, though she was swiftly released. In the same year, the Sarkozy administration announced - sixteen years after the first suspects arrived in France - that a special investigative commission would be set up to address crimes against humanity and genocide. The foreign minister Bernard Kouchner declared that France "would not be a sanctuary for those accused of such crimes".

The second factor contributing to the trial at the Palais de Justice is a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) that suspects will get a fair trial in Rwanda, following wholesale changes to the judicial system there. As a result, the United Nations, Canada and the Nordic countries have sent back suspects to Rwanda; meanwhile, Belgium, Finland, Norway, Switzerland and the Netherlands have held their own trials. Germany has just convicted its first Rwandan genocide suspect after a trial in Frankfurt. This flurry of action increased the pressure on France: for the country to have reached the forthcoming twentieth anniversary without having put a single suspect in the dock would risk widespread condemnation, and accusations that France was shielding the accused and failing to serve its obligations under the genocide convention of 1948.

So the slow but perceptible effort to address the politically divisive issue of these genocide trials by the French government has begun to make limited progress. There is, though, still real resistance among some of the military and political "old guard" in France - even to accept there was a genocide, let alone that France has any questions to answer or legal obligations in relation to it.

Colonel Michel Robardey, an adviser to the Rwandan gendarmerie from 1990-93, is one of the few witnesses so far called in Simbikangwa’s defence. In his testimony he dismissed the notion that "massacres" occurred before the genocide as RPF "disinformation", against detailed reports by the UN and several international human-rights groups attesting to them. He then described the genocide as a "spontaneous" reaction by the Hutu population to the death of their president. There was, according to the colonel, no organisation or planning; the notorious "double genocide" allegation, that each side was responsible for massacring the other, was again paraded.

This statement has been used by many French military and political figures, including former prime minister Dominique de Villepin and Mitterrand himself; it has become a vital tool in "rebranding" and downplaying French support for the Habyarimana and interim governments. A number of Serb nationalists have borrowed it to "explain" Srebrenica and indeed some Nazis to "explain" the Holocaust. By the time Robardey left the dock, the court had learned less about Simbikangwa’s guilt or innocence than about the mindset of some French military officers who served alongside the Rwandan army in the early 1990s when it was fighting against the RPF.

Such attitudes do little to reassure Rwanda's government and public that - after the inevitably short-term media interest in the commemoration - France will ensure continued justice and more trials. Indeed, survivors have broached the fear that this costly legal proceeding could just be a public-relations gimmick; a Rwandan newspaper headline - "Kigali unmoved by Simbikangwa trial as many suspects roam free in France" - reflects a widespread scepticism in the country where the crimes took place.

Rwanda's commemoration events take place on 7 April 2014. It is not clear yet whether, apart from the French ambassador in Kigali, any visiting dignitary will represent France. The then foreign minister Alain Juppé made sure to avoid Paul Kagame when Rwanda's president visited Paris in September 2011, as did other senior government officials such as the head of the senate and speaker of the national assembly. The mutual distrust and dislike is still very evident.

These feelings have been further strained in recent months by what Rwandans see as substantial "provocations" in France towards the memory of the genocide. On 20 December 2013, the Canal+ television channel broadcast a comedy programme featuring sketches that were interpreted as ridiculing the genocide and its victims (in one, actors in parody-"Rwandan" style sang to the tune of a popular French nursery-rhyme the words “mum is upstairs, cut into pieces; daddy is downstairs, he lacks an arm", to the evident amusement of the audience). An outcry by survivors' groups in France, and an online petition, led television regulators to reprimand the channel.
Then, in France's 2014 new-year honours' list, the journalist and author Pierre Péan received the Légion d’honneur. Among his works is Noires Fureurs, Blancs Menteurs: Rwanda 1990-1994 (2006) which blamed the RPF and the Tutsis for hoodwinking the international community when, according to Péan, they were the ones responsible for the "massacres" (which he denied amounted to genocide). Many human-rights groups and victims saw this award to someone seen as in the vanguard of genocide denial as at least untimely, and at worst a deliberate attempt by some senior French officials to negate the forthcoming commemoration.

Back in assize-court number three at the Palais de Justice, Pascal Simbikangwa's defence team is struggling to cope. Their dubious strategy has included accusing one human-rights investigator who published a lengthy report on massacres in 1991-92 of only being in Rwanda because he fancied Tutsi women. The horrified reaction of judge, jury and public should give some clue this was not a tactic liable to work. They were also badly let down when one of their key witnesses, the Belgian scholar Filip Reyntjens, verified the existence of death-squads and the akazu or politico-mafia group around senior regime figures.

Simbikangwa himself though has proved to be a charismatic and lively defendant, anything but awed by the 7,000 pages of documents stacked behind the three judges and six lay jury. The verdict will rest on whether prosecutors can prove that he assisted in organising and arming the militia that carried out mass killing at two roadblocks. His defence team has already tried to have the trial stopped claiming their client cannot have a fair hearing; political pressure, they assert, is driving a headlong rush to complete at least one case before the twentieth anniversary.

While this trial made headlines in the French press, far less attention has been given to significant developments in a related one at the International Criminal Tribunal on Rwanda (ICTR) at Arusha, Tanzania. There, three more senior Rwandan officers, including a general, had been previously found guilty of genocide; but at the  ICTR's appeal bench on 11 February 2014 two of the three defendants had their convictions quashed and the third had his sentence reduced from twenty to fifteen years. The presiding judge was the controversial 83 year-old Theodor Meron; it is the latest of a series of decisions by the American judge to overturned such convictions both in Arusha and at International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) at The Hague, Netherlands. The rulings made little news outside Rwanda, where "international justice" has become synonymous with impunity.

The explosion of violent conflicts in Syria, Libya, Mali, South Sudan and the Central African Republic, and the allegations of war crimes, ethnic cleansing or genocide that surround them, underscores the importance of seeking justice over Rwanda's genocide. These conflicts also mean the west is, for a long time to come, going to face the issue of bringing alleged offenders to trial when they have fled to Europe or the United States.

They also imply, as Alain Gauthier and others would argue, that Pascal Simbikangwa's trial should become the rule not an exception. If western justice is seen to take twenty years and be beholden to political rather than ethical or judicial considerations, it will only encourage impunity and further encourage alleged mass murderers to flee to its shores. The complex issues around international justice increase when the west has itself - as in Rwanda - been embroiled in the situation; any subsequent trials might expose a western state's true role as well as the guilt or innocence of the accused. For many survivors, Simbikangwa is not the only one in the dock.

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