Confronting Ghosts

France convicts a Rwandan of genocide -- and grapples with its own role in the horrific events of 1994.


PARIS — On a sunny morning in mid-March, a man was wheeled past Sainte-Chapelle, one of France’s most famous churches. Pascal Simbikangwa, a 54-year-old with a sharp profile and slack cheeks, is an admirer of Francophone literature, especially the works of Jean de la Fontaine. He speaks French with an impeccable accent. During his stay in a hospital in Belgium in the late 1980s, after a car accident that cost him the use of his legs, he started to work on an autobiography in French entitled The Man and His Cross. The book enjoyed relative success in his home country, Rwanda.

But on this Friday morning, Simbikangwa was not in Paris for the culture. He was not, in fact, a free man. Two policemen wheeled him into the French national tribunal adjacent to Sainte-Chapelle. Simbikangwa is a former Rwandan intelligence chief, and he was here, in Paris, to be tried for complicity in the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.

The genocide occurred in a country ravaged by civil war between two ethnic groups: the Tutsi minority and the Hutu majority. Over half a million people were savagely killed within the space of 100 days. The victims were mostly Tutsi, but also moderate Hutu. The genocide was orchestrated by the political Hutu elite, but the killers ranged from army officials to civilian militia to neighbors — and even relatives — of the victims.

After six weeks of harrowing testimonies and 12 hours of deliberations, the court found Simbikangwa guilty of the crime of genocide and sentenced him to 25 years in prison on March 14. With the verdict, France joined the ranks of Germany, Belgium, and Sweden, among others, in trying a Rwandan native in connection with the events of 1994. And it comes after two decades of ambivalence in France about the role the country played in the genocide, perhaps signaling that the French are ready to reexamine their own past.

"I was a captain in the Rwandan Army, and then in the intelligence services," Simbikangwa told the court at the opening of the trial in February, when asked to identify himself. "I never left my office," he claimed.

He continued to deny all charges throughout the trial, alleging that while in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital, between April and July 1994, he did not see a single dead body.

Though his defense attempted to paint him as a side-figure unable to stem violence, the French court found that Simbikangwa was no ordinary captain. In fact, he was third in the chain of command in the Rwandan intelligence service, personally responsible for providing arms to the Interahamwe Hutu militia in Kigali. Simbikangwa belonged to the close-knit extremist vanguard of the Hutu militia that led the genocide, the so-called akazu. He was also one of the 50 founders of Radio Milles Collines, a station that played a significant role in stoking ethnic hatred.

Claims that Simbikangwa was a marginal figure in the genocide were not entirely unfounded. "It’s important to remember that not all perpetrators are made of the same metal," said Jean-Francois Dupaquier, whose book on the French military in Rwanda mentions Simbikangwa directly. Dupaquier argued that the captain had begun to lose political footing even before the genocide began, perhaps due to his handicap or his staunch loyalty to President Juvénal Habyarimana, even after the latter’s death in an airplane crash in April 1994. But this does not make him any less guilty. "He outdid himself in terms of zealousness to show that he belonged to the akazu mafia," Dupaquier said.

Among the Rwandans present in the courtroom throughout the trial was Dafroza Gauthier. Dafroza, a Tutsi, saw her family massacred in 1994. On the first day of the trial, she was dressed in a smart suit and with slicked-back hair. Next to her sat her husband Alain, furiously taking notes on his laptop. Dafroza said she came to the trial "with a certain degree of satisfaction."

"We have been waiting a very, very long time for this," she added.

The Gauthiers have spent the last 12 years tracking down Rwandan genocide suspects in exile. France has done little to investigate alleged perpetrators on its territory, including the former Rwandan president’s wife, whom French authorities declined to extradite in 2011 to face charges in Rwanda. Faced with the state’s reluctance, the Gauthiers decided to take matters into their own hands and founded an NGO dedicated to collecting evidence and tracking down alleged perpetrators. They hunted Simbikangwa for several years, and the announcing of the verdict in his case was their hour of glory.

"It’s a good decision," Alain Gauthier said. "Twenty-five years, in my opinion, is too light a sentence. But I think a sentence in and of itself is what is most important."

The mood at the court was festive on its last day: The final hearing ended with a round of applause, and people milled about to congratulate the Gauthiers on the fruits of their labor.

More than 25 cases related to the Rwandan genocide are still waiting to be heard in France — the Gauthiers have high hopes that this trial is the first of more to come.

And yet Simbikangwa’s case was not without controversy. The defense team was concerned that their client was being made into a scapegoat for the genocide. "Are we judging Pascal Simbikangwa here, or are we judging the genocide?" Fabrice Epstein, the defense’s leading lawyer, asked the courtroom when opening the trial. For weeks, the jury heard experts, historians, psychologists, and scholars talk about the genocide — but, as one former diplomat warned over a video testimony from Belgium, "We should not make the mistake of becoming polarized." The genocide, with all its documentable atrocities, should not be confused with the man, Simbikangwa, against whom evidence was largely circumstantial.

The captain is remembered by many in Rwanda as "the torturer," and a small army of witnesses from Rwanda testified against him. Yet Simbikangwa’s defense claimed that convicting him based on witnesses’ potentially faulty memories of traumatic events from 20 years ago was a grave mistake (a common defense argument in these types of cases).

There was also what some saw as a lack of expertise among the jury. Lined up along the eastern side of the courtroom, the group was made up of French citizens who grew up thousands of miles away from Kigali. "Is the tribunal competent to judge this case?" Epstein’s question at the beginning of the trial referred to the jury, and to the rest of the court as well. Epstein himself, in his mid-thirties, sporting stubble and fashionable glasses, is better versed in European business law than Rwandan politics.

Simbikangwa’s team of lawyers was not alone in wondering whether a French national court was equipped to deal with unthinkable crimes committed on another continent. The Rwandan government also expressed doubts. It demanded Simbikangwa’s extradition when he was first located on the French Indian Ocean island of Mayotte. But France refused to fly the captain to Kigali, claiming he would not receive a fair trial there. "In Rwanda, he would have been condemned even before being judged," Rwandan exiled opposition party leader Faustin Twakiramungu told the French channel France24 when the trial opened.

Conventional courts in Rwanda began trying genocide cases in 1996. But over half of the country’s trained lawyers and judges had been killed or had fled the country, and the process of making judgments was slow. At the time, 120,000 suspects were waiting for their cases to be heard, and according to the government’s estimates, it would have taken more than 200 years to hear them all.

To deal with the enormity of the judicial challenge, a two-part system was set up, with high-level criminals sent to the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) in Arusha, Tanzania, and lower-level ones dealt with by a plethora of local courts. The international tribunal is no longer accepting cases, however, and judges in the local courts, critics say, are badly trained. Some have even been accused of having participated in the genocide themselves.

France opted to try Simbikangwa’s case in order to ensure a fair judicial process, and also to bolster its own image of fighting impunity. Nevertheless, many survivors in Rwanda would like to see remaining justice for the genocide dealt out on home soil. Speaking about Simbikangwa’s trial, Jean Pierre Dusingizemungu, an advocate for genocide survivors, told a national newspaper in February that he was concerned "the context and a clear description of how the crime was committed may be lost if the trial is conducted in a foreign language." (While French is one of Rwanda’s official languages, it was not the first language for the majority of eyewitnesses scheduled to be called to the stand during Simbikangwa’s trial.)

Still, others welcomed the trial as a sign that France was ready to open a dark chapter in its own history. "France was complicit in the Rwandan genocide," Annie Faure claimed at a press conference before the trial opened. Working for Doctors Without Borders in 1994 in Rwanda, Faure witnessed French troops backing and training Hutu soldiers who then turned around and massacred civilians. Today, she is part of a civil rights group investigating France’s role in the genocide, known as the Commission d’Enquête Citoyenne pour la vérité sur l’implication française dans le génocide des Tutsi ("Commission of Citizen Inquiry for the Truth about French Involvement in the Genocide of the Tutsi," or CEC). The CEC hoped the captain’s presence in a Paris courtroom would help shed light on the skeletons in France’s closet too.

France had close ties with Rwanda before the genocide, which many say led the French to continue to back the Hutu-dominated interim government long after it was clear that genocide was happening. According to Human Rights Watch, in addition to training and arming Hutu militia, France allowed perpetrators to flee into what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo (at the time called Zaire). France has recognized what happened as "political errors," to use Nicolas Sarkozy’s words when he visited Rwanda in 2010. But it denies allegations of complicity in the genocide.

This stance can be compared to that of Belgium — the last colonial power in Rwanda — where a parliamentary inquiry found that the country shared in the moral responsibility for the genocide because the Belgian government had been aware of the killings but unwilling to act to prevent it. Belgium withdrew its troops from Rwanda at the onset of the genocide, after 10 of its soldiers were killed, and was seen as pushing for a total withdrawal of U.N. forces. Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt formally apologized for his country’s indifference in 2000 during a visit to Kigali.

Though a similar mission was opened in France in 1998, the findings did not go as far as many would have liked. "If anything, they legitimized the government’s denials," said author Dupaquier. According to a subsequent report by the CEC, the findings failed to hold high-level army and government officials under then-French President Francois Mitterrand accountable.

Although those who want one have yet to hear a formal apology from France — and may never hear one — Simbikangwa’s trial is still seen by many as a sign of change in France’s relations with Kigali and with its own past. The court itself was careful to steer clear of the controversial issue, as it was not seen to be immediately relevant to Simbikangwa’s story, yet the case was an occasion for national media to recall and report on France’s role in Rwanda in 1994.

Even Epstein, while disapproving of the trial, recognized its impact. "France is sending a strong message to Kigali," he said in a press conference, "saying that though it has been a bad student for the past 20 years, it’s now first of the class."

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