A military officer in the Rwandan capital of Kigali under the presidency of Juvénal Habyarimana, Simbikangwa is most notably said to have organised road blocks and armed militiamen who were stationed at them.
The plaintiffs say the trial is historic.
“We’ve been fighting for a first trial [of Rwandans implicated in the genocide and now residing in France] for a very long time. It has finally arrived. Now we’ll have to convince the jury of Pascal Simbikangwa’s guilt,” said Alain Gauthier, the head of an association of plaintiffs pursuing legal action against perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide. “This is a historic trial for Rwanda and for humanity.”
A French trial
The trial is also historic for France.
Indeed, it marks the turning of a page of ambiguous history between France and Rwanda. While other European countries, as well as the US and Canada, held trials for Hutu genocide suspects living in those countries, France let pre-trial legal procedures drag on and suspects on French soil slip away.
Despite an official diplomatic reconciliation in 2010, France’s reluctance to bring those involved in the massacres to trial has caused a deep rift with Rwanda, which accuses French authorities of playing a role in the genocide.
“In the shadow of this trial, there are other cases still being prepared. And there are some extremely troubling things about the way certain French political figures conducted themselves,” explained Patrick de Saint-Exupéry, editor-in-chief of monthly magazine XXI and a Rwanda specialist. “The documents necessary to bring these cases to trial have been sitting on desks for the last 20 years, but people have got away with not doing anything.”
The French legal system seems to have expedited procedures since 2012, when a “crimes against humanity” department was founded with five lawyers employed full-time. Twenty-five cases specifically concerning Rwanda are currently being prepared.
‘A positive sign’
Simbikangwa’s lawyers fear that the historic nature of the trial will play against him. “Because it has been 20 years since the genocide of the Tutsis, people want to condemn Pascal Simbikangwa. He’s the first to come before a French judge and people want to use him as an example,” one of his lawyers, Fabrice Epstein, told Agence France-Presse.
The Rwandan government, run by the Rwandan Patriotic Front, a former Tutsi rebellion which put an end to the massacres and subsequently took control in 1994, has long criticised France for its refusal to extradite genocide suspects. Simbikangwa’s trial has therefore been received as a “positive sign”, in the words of Rwandan Justice Minister Johnston Busingye.
“It’s not the right moment to celebrate, it’s just the beginning. We are going to observe this trial with much interest,” Busingye told AFP, adding that the Rwandan government would “cooperate” if necessary.
Simbikangwa categorically denies accusations
Simbikangwa was initially arrested for carrying fake travel documents in the French Indian Ocean islands known collectively as Mayotte in 2008.
Since being in custody, he has categorically denied the accusations levelled against him.
“I was captain in the Rwandan army and then head of the intelligence agency,” he told the court on Tuesday.
Simbikangwa recognises his former closeness with ex-President Juvénal Habyarimana’s inner circle, members of which have been convicted for participating in the genocide. But he has maintained that he himself was never involved in the massacres.
His lawyers may try to argue that he was just following orders. “Pascal Simbikangwa was not a member of the government. He had great admiration for President Habyarimana and was part of the presidential guard. But he was not a decision maker,” one of his attorneys, Alexandra Bourgeot, told FRANCE 24.
The trial is expected to last six to eight weeks.
First Posted on france24.com