PARIS (Reuters) - French prosecutors are seeking a life term for a Rwandan ex-soldier accused of participating in the country’s 1994 genocide, in a verdict due on Friday that could decide whether Paris and Kigali bring up to 20 other such cases to court.
In a first for France, a jury will decide whether Pascal Simbikangwa - whom prosecutors allege was the No. 3 in Rwanda’s intelligence services - is guilty of genocide and complicity in crimes against humanity during a wave of bloodletting in which 800,000 minority Tutsis and politically moderate Hutus died.
Simbikangwa, 54, was initially charged as an accessory to genocide. But prosecutors said the testimony heard from some 50 witnesses during a complex and harrowing six-week trial shows he is guilty of genocide itself.
“Pascal Simbikangwa is among those who were behind (the crimes),” vice-prosecutor Aurelia Devos told the court in statements summing up the prosecutors’ case on Wednesday.
“It is clear that as well as distributing weapons, he encouraged and ordered (these acts),” she added.
A staunch ally of President Juvenal Habyarimana, a Hutu whose death in the downing of his plane in April 1994 triggered the massacres, Simbikangwa cast himself as a “mere agent” with little decision power as his country descended into chaos. His lawyers also questioned the reliability of witness memories.
A guilty verdict could smooth future prosecutions by France’s special genocide unit. Diplomatic sources say a short sentence or acquittal could complicate Franco-Rwandan ties.
“On the Rwandan side, it’s pretty straightforward: they are saying ‘you didn’t want to extradite him, you wanted to judge him yourselves - now let’s see if you can bring Rwandan genocidaires to justice’,” a senior French judicial source said.
Similar trials have already taken place in Belgium, Sweden and Germany with guilty verdicts.
The trial is wrapped up in a wider political and economic rapprochement between Rwanda and France since the genocide, the perpetrators of which President Paul Kagame once said had French backing.
Kagame, a rebel leader whose government came to power after the genocide, accused France of training and arming the Hutu militias who were the main force behind the slaughter - an accusation Paris has always denied.
Foreign minister Louise Mushikiwabo tweeted in February the fact the trial was being held was “one small step in the right direction after a long journey of cover-up and distortion.”
About 20 other cases have been filed in Paris against other Rwandans living in France and suspected of being accessories to the massacre. Paris has refused to extradite Rwandan nationals back to Rwanda - a stance recently reaffirmed by its top court - but needs cooperation from Kigali to mount cases against them.
In a wheelchair since a 1986 car accident left him paraplegic, Simbikangwa has sought to minimize his importance within the Rwandan secret services, repeatedly reminding the jury that he is the son of a Hutu father and a Tutsi mother.
“People are falsely accusing the innocent to prevent the Hutus and the Tutsis from making up,” Simbikangwa told the court. “No one could ever persuade me that I asked the militias to take my mother’s life to spare my father‘s.”
Many witnesses disputed that, saying the man confined during the trial to a glassed-in defendant’s box was feared throughout Kigali and widely known there as the “torturer.”
Several witnesses said they saw him arm and give orders to extremist Hutus at barriers erected during the genocide to filter and kill Tutsis.
Paradoxically, some of the most powerful testimony came from Tutsis which Simbikangwa said he had taken outside of Kigali and hid in his house to spare them from the killings.
One such witness said that during three months spent there, he saw Simbikangwa’s two bodyguards come back on several occasions covered in blood, boasting about having killed Tutsis. Others alleged that arms were stored at the house.
An ex-journalist now in prison for inciting violence via her radio program said Simbikangwa was a regular visitor to Radio Télévision des Mille Collines - a media outlet of which he was a founding member and which the UN International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda has described as instrumental in the killings.
Additional reporting by Jenny Clover in Kigali; Editing by Alexandria Sage and Mark John