A French court on Friday set what observers describe as a precedent given its likely impact other cases before the country’s judiciary.
In what is seen as a possible litmus test, France’s Cour d’Assises (Assize Court), handed Pascal Simbikangwa a 25-year jail sentence for his role the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.
He was found guilty of genocide and complicity to crimes against humanity for killings in Kigali, much to the relief of the many people who had turned up in support of the France-based rights group, Collectif des Parties Civiles pour le Rwanda (CPCR), which sued Simbikangwa.
A nine-member jury threw out other counts involving killings in Gisenyi, now Rubavu, where the former spy chief allegedly supplied arms to the Interahamwe militia.
Justice Minister Johnston Busingye said the judgment was a “milestone for justice.”
“There are a dozen indictments sitting in the French justice system. Whether this trial was symbolic will be tested in the weeks and months ahead by what happens to those other files,” he added.
He said it redeems the image of the French judicial system that had become “synonymous with shielding genocide suspects from justice”.
Simbikangwa, was arrested in 2008 on the French island of Mayotte where he lived under an assumed name, “Safari.”
What makes the trial a milestone is the fact that this is France’s first-ever conviction for genocide. But it continues to harbor dozens of known masterminds of the genocide such as Agathe Kanziga, the widow of former President Juvenal Habyarimana.
Former lawmaker, Charles Kamanda, a survivor of the Genocide, said the outcome of the trial was ‘a big achievement.’
“It is the first time that France makes efforts to try a top Rwandan genocide suspect. The 25 years he got might not be enough, but it is fair enough to me. Also importantly, however, is the speed the trial was conducted,” Kamanda said.
Evode Kalima, another survivor, said ever since the trial begun, he never belived the court would give a punishment equal to the crimes Simbikangwa committed between 1990 and 1994. During that time, Kalima was a resident of Kigali.
One of the reasons he doubted whether a French court would deliver justice, he said, was that the French government in the past refused to try any of the fugitives on its soil.
“Much is hinged on the fact that from 1990 to 1994, there was an uncanny relationship between the French government and the then Rwandan government, and Simbikangwa at the time was an intelligence officer in the Rwandan government,” Kalima said.
He agrees with others that the verdict by a French court was an important step in the history of international justice with respect to crimes against humanity especially since France seemed to ignore calls for it to ensure justice prevails.
Alain Gauthier and his wife, Daphrose, who formed the CPCR, in 2001, hopes the development heralds more action but he remains cautious.
“The CPCR welcomes the conviction of Pascal Simbikangwa by the Assize Court of Paris for the crime of genocide and complicity in crimes against humanity. This historical decision encourages us in the path that we have undertaken to pursue Rwandan genocide suspects present on French soil,” echoed Gauthier said in an e-mail.
“We attended a trial of high standards, both in terms of the President, Olivier Leurent, as well as the side of the prosecution, Bruno Sturlese and Aurélia Devos. We however only regret the behavior of the defense lawyers who sometimes used questionable methods. This trial allows real glimmers of hope for all the trials yet to come in the future”.
Earlier, on Thursday, French prosecutors had sought a life sentence for Simbikangwa, a man who was nick-named The Torturer during the Genocide.
On February 5, Simbikangwa admitted that he financed Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM), an extremist radio that called on the public to hunt and kill all the Tutsi in Rwanda, to the tune of Rwf100,000.
His is the first Genocide case to be tried in French, two decades after the Genocide.
The CPCR has tracked down and sued over 20 such suspects in France, but authorities there continue to delay their trial. They include Hyacinthe Rafiki Nsengiyumva, former Minister of Public Works and founder member of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) militia which has terrorised civilians in eastern DR Congo and Rwanda for years.
Analysts note that the trial was also about what has been for long a judicial blindness in France.
On Friday night, riot police reportedly encircled about 10 activists who shouted “France was complicit in Rwanda’s genocide!” as they tried to demonstrate outside the courthouse and, since the protesters did not have the requisite proper permit, and were escorted away, it is said.