Simbikangwa trial more than just the sentence – Gauthier

For over a decade now, Alain Gauthier, his wife Dafroza and other individuals in France, have investigated and tracked Rwandans suspected of participating in the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, but living in France with impunity.
Alain Gauthier addressing journalists after court found Simbikangwa guilty of genocide. (Internet photo)
Alain Gauthier addressing journalists after court found Simbikangwa guilty of genocide. (Internet photo)

For over a decade now, Alain Gauthier, his wife Dafroza and other individuals in France, have investigated and tracked Rwandans suspected of participating in the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, but living in France with impunity.

From their home in Reims, a city lying 129 kilometers northeast of Paris, the Gauthiers have worked hard, taken demoralising risks, but challenged France’s apparent longstanding protection of Genocide fugitives. 

Born in 1954, Dafroza is a chemical engineer who lost her mother and about 80 other close relatives in the Genocide. She married Alain, 65, a retired high school principal who lived and worked in Rwanda as a young French language teacher at a local junior high school, in 1977.

In an interview with The New TimesJames Karuhanga, French national Alain Gauthier talked about how difficult the work has been and what inspires this couple to trudge on in search for justice for the victims of the Genocide, but also for Rwanda’s sustainable peace. 

Below are the excerpts:

Your organisation, Collectif des Parties Civiles pours le Rwanda (CPCR), has over the years worked hard to see Genocide suspects living in France brought to book. How did it all start?

The idea for CPCR came up in 2001 at the end of a trial of Rwandans in Belgium, I think it was the two nuns from Sovu (current Huye District).

After the trial, one of our friends, who at the time headed a similar organisation as ours in Belgium engaged us on how we can take with us the same idea to France, create a similar organisation to push for justice, especially for survivors.

We acted quickly and by November the same year, CPCR was born with support from a few friends.

When and how did you meet Dafroza?

We got married in July 1977. I had worked for two years at Petit Séminaire de Save (Butare) from September 1970 to July 1972 as a French language teacher. Back home, we had an option of, instead of a year of military service, to go and work in the Foreign Service.

By chance, I was sent to Rwanda which, at the time, I barely knew by name. I was a student in the Faculty of Theology at the University of Strasbourg. Dafroza was just one of the many contacts that I had in Rwanda.

In 1973, Dafroza having been chased from her school, fled to Burundi for a few months and then later rejoined her older brother who had been living in Belgium for several years. 

It was not until 1974 that we had the opportunity to see each other and decided to enjoin our destinies and embark on life’s road together. We have been on this journey for nearly 40 years.

It was out of your advocacy that a Genocide trial was initiated against Pascal Simbikangwa in France. What do you make of his 25 year sentence?

It is not the number of years (of sentence) that is important for us. No punishment would be big enough for a crime of genocide. What is important is the condemnation of the crime. 

It is the first time that in France, one is sentenced for Genocide. Even as the trial was well conducted during its initial six weeks, the attitude of the defence was often intolerable.

The trial of Pascal Simbikangwa was not the first one that we had expected. Many other older lawsuits were filed in France, six of them, even before the creation of the CPCR. The French justice system has for long dragged its feet because the political leadership had not given it the means to do its job.

Things changed in January 2012 with the creation, in the Tribunal de Grande Instance (TGI) of Paris, of a special unit which is composed of three full-time judges and many gendarmes who regularly travel to Rwanda to investigate basing on the lawsuits that we file.

For this Simbikangwa case to come first, it is simply because this man has been in provisional custody for four years after serving a sentence for falsified documents. The provisional detention cannot exceed four years and the alternative was therefore to release him, hence we are happy the trial started.

Note that the prosecution in France,has never prosecuted any alleged Genocide suspect on its own initiative. Without the lawsuits from CPCR and some other associations which support us, there would be no trial until now in Paris.

This trial and Simbikangwa conviction must effectively be considered as a symbol of the end of impunity. From now onwards, in France, people may be charged for Genocide. It is a great sign of hope for the other cases.

For the past 13 years you pursued other individuals in France. Do you now feel more encouraged to carry on with the fight?

Simbikangwa’s trial, we hope, is just the first of the many to come. Twenty five other lawsuits have been filed, which required a lot of work from us. For nearly 15 years, all of our free time is dedicated to this fight.  

This is a mission that we have set for ourselves at the CPCR. It is an everyday struggle, which unfortunately will not end. This trial is an encouragement to continue the fight, even if some days we feel very tired, and sometimes discouraged.

What motivates you to do this seemingly dangerous job – tracking Genocide suspects? 

The motivation is essentially our faith in justice. We think that justice is a prerequisite for sustainable peace; I mean justice, not revenge or hatred...other than that, we do not expect anything else. 

We want to be the spokespersons of the voiceless, those who cannot speak because people decided one day that they no longer needed to exist. Our struggle cannot be imagined as just a commitment by the two of us, Dafroza and me, but as of all members of CPRC.

How, in your opinion, did many Genocide suspects end up getting seemingly comfortable in France anyway? What makes it easy for them to live in France?

For there to be many Genocide suspects in France, it is because there were friends, contacts, supporters of different forms. And again, there exist associations which welcome and advocate for them. 

Then, Genocide suspects are smart enough not to talk about their past or their personal history; they are good neighbours, good parents, good Christians. 

They re-established themselves as innocent, blameless folks in France, began a new life where genocide has no place. Until today, French magistrates in charge of extraditions have refused to send them back to Rwanda, and they now feel like they have some kind of security.

What prevents the extradition of these suspects? 

The French justice system has dealt with a dozen requests, they have refused to extradite them on grounds that Genocide suspects would not have a fair trial in Rwanda, that witnesses would not be protected, and especially that the organic law punishing the crime of genocide in Rwanda was enacted after the Genocide itself, thus people cannot be tried retroactively.

Many of the suspects have actually obtained citizenship but it is not always easy to know who. 

Habyarimana’s children are French citizens; Paul Kanyamihigo has become Paul Camy. For others, more research would be necessary. But most of them are now French.

Do ordinary French folks even know about that these suspected mass murderers live amidst them?

The French population is not well informed about the presence of Genocide suspects in France. 

This is one of the reasons Simbikangwa trial is important. At least in the first days, most media houses were interested in it, and they made various reports in newspapers and TV shows through which, we hope the French people got to learn more. 

Do you think average French folks understand their government’s role in the Genocide in 1994? Do people on the street care about what happened in Rwanda in 1994?

The majority of the French people do not know the role of the French government in the Genocide against the Tutsi.. Neighbours often do not know that Genocide suspects live near them. 

When we file a lawsuit, everyone who knows these people is surprised that we are pursuing them. It is us who would pass for the bad guys. It’s only fair for the courts to say the truth.

What challenges have you encountered while working to ensure that Genocide suspects face justice? 

Of course the work we do is difficult. Preparing a lawsuit requires a lot of work, sometimes several trips to Rwanda, gathering evidence, translating and engaging our lawyers to prepare and file lawsuits/complaints. 

Our work has triggered a lot of articles in which we are attacked. We have received threats, we complained, but they are most often anonymous threats. But we are not afraid. 

We simply do our duty. It is not us to look down. I remember an extradition hearing at the Court of Appeal of Versailles at the end of which the police demanded that I leave with them to the station, as the tension was high. Over forty of the suspect’s friends were present that day...

Any idea how much in monetary terms you have  spent on these cases, and do you have sponsors?

It is difficult to say how much we have spent in 15 years. We may have, perhaps, given 30,000 Euros to our lawyers in 12 years. The French judiciary usually demands for security (monetary) when we file complaints – there was 6,000 Euros in the Kanziga case. 

Right now we are short of funds considering the association’s small budget. We have a small budget, less than 10,000 Euros per year. The money is raised by members, friends and anonymous donors. 

We launched an appeal for donations but we have not raised much funds. People had promised to help mobilize money from Rwanda as well as in the Rwandan Diaspora. But all that has never held us back from working. We do what we can.

How do you gauge the journey ahead? Do you see all the Genocide suspects in France stripped of the safe haven they currently enjoy, and actually brought to court, or even extradited?

The work we have undertaken will take long. After 20 years, only one trial has been held, there is certainly going to be an appeal. And then the case will resume in a year or so.. How then will we be able to try the remaining 25 cases? 

How much time will that take? This is a real problem. Time is favouring the suspects. I think the years that we have to live alone will not bring the fight to an end. The question is who will take on the mantle from us? That is the problem.

How does their future in France look like?

I do not know. Who knows the future? We have children, grandchildren that we also want to give a little time. 

We do not have an extraordinary life. We continue living just as we have always done, in utmost simplicity. We are ordinary people who are dealing with extraordinary events..