PARIS — Through a ground-breaking trial, France is at last coming to terms with its much-criticized response to Rwanda's genocide.
Pascal Simbikangwa, a wheelchair-bound Rwandan former intelligence chief, is to appear Tuesday in a Paris court for an expected seven-week trial to face charges of complicity in genocide and complicity in crimes against humanity. France is playing catch-up to a U.N. tribunal and other courts that have convicted dozens and shed light on the genocide nearly two decades ago.
Activists hope the Paris trial will remind French leaders of their role and responsibility in Africa — where French power is felt today in Mali and Central African Republic — and mark the end of an era in which France provided a haven for those who committed atrocities abroad.
"Finally!" Bernard Kouchner, a humanitarian aid activist in Rwanda at the time and later French foreign minister, said of the Simbikangwa trial.
"France played a bad role in this genocide. It didn't allow justice to do its job, and investigate correctly, or bring to justice those responsible who had fled to France," Kouchner said in a telephone interview.
The case is steeped in historical symbolism: In a country whose Nazi collaborationist regime in World War II sent thousands of Jews to their deaths, a Justice Ministry spokeswoman said it is the first trial in France on charges of genocide.
It may be the first of many such trials, made possible under1990s laws allowing near-universal jurisdiction for exceptional crimes. Another 27 cases linked to Rwanda's genocide await in the Paris court's war crimes and crimes against humanity unit, including one focusing on the widow of the Rwandan president, whose killing set off the genocide.
"The message of this trial is also that France will no longer be a safe haven for Rwandan suspects of genocide, hopefully, after all these years," said Clemence Bectarte, a lawyer with the International Federation of Human Rights, one of several civil parties to the state's case.
The story about why France has taken so long speaks in part to the era of "Francafrique," a pejorative buzzword for the cushy personal ties that many French businessmen and officials had with African dictators in the postcolonial era. Under President Francois Mitterrand, France armed and trained Rwandan forces, ignored government abuses, and helped some genocide perpetrators flee the country, critics say. After the genocide, successive French governments and the state apparatus repeatedly thwarted attempts to expose France's role, while letting into France some suspected to have blood on their hands.
France had close ties to the government of President Juvenal Habyarimana, an ethnic Hutu who died when his plane was shot down on April 6, 1994. His death set off a 100-day bloodbath of reprisal slayings of ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus — leaving at least 500,000 people dead. It ended when Tutsi-led rebels under current President Paul Kagame defeated Hutu extremists.
Simbikangwa, who is disabled because of a car accident in the 1980s, was arrested in 2008 on France's Indian Ocean island of Mayotte, where he had been living under an alias. He is accused of helping arm Hutu soldiers who manned roadway checkpoints in the capital, and instructing them about their part in the slaughter.
If convicted, Simbikangwa, 54, could face a life sentence. In telephone interviews, his lawyers said they will argue for an acquittal, and fear that the trial will be lopsided — in part because of the difficulty in finding anyone to speak in their client's defense.
More than 50 witnesses including journalists, historians, farmers, security guards, and former intelligence officials are expected to be called, nearly all by the prosecution. Several films are to be shown, including one whose title translates as "Kill Them All," a 2004 documentary on the genocide.
Unusually, and against defense lawyers' wishes, the trial will be filmed by court officials for posterity.
French courts refused to allow the extradition of Simbikangwa to Rwanda. "The government of Rwanda is able to influence the outcome of trials, particularly on political cases, or cases that are sensitive," said Carina Tertsakian, a senior researcher in Human Rights Watch's Africa division.
The U.N. tribunal on the Rwanda genocide, based in Arusha, Tanzania, as well as several Western countries — including Belgium, Rwanda's former colonial overseer — have brought dozens of people to justice. The U.N. tribunal will close later this year. Over the years, France handed over three suspects to the tribunal, a dribble compared to the 27 cases now in the Paris court, tribunal documents show.
Ties between France and Rwanda eroded after the genocide. A low point came in November 2006, when a French anti-terrorism magistrate delivered nine arrest warrants for people close to Kagame. Serious French casework resumed after a political thaw, when Kouchner was foreign minister.
France, he said, "wasn't accused of participating in the genocide, it was accused of making grave political errors."
"For many years, France prevented justice from being done — let's be clear — blocked it for reasons of unease and bad memories of its behavior," Kouchner said.
Bastien Innzauralde in Paris contributed to this report.