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France upholds prison term for Rwanda genocide convict

A French court on Saturday upheld a 25 year prison sentence handed to a former Rwandan intelligence agent jailed in France's first trial over the African country's 1994 genocide.

France upholds prison term for Rwanda genocide convict
During his trial, Simbikangwa claimed his innocence, saying he had never seen any victims' bodies during the massacres. Photo: Bertrand Guay / AFP file picture

Pascal Simbikangwa was found guilty of genocide and complicity in crimes against humanity in a landmark 2014 trial that marked a turning point in France's approach to genocide suspects living on its soil.

Simbikangwa, a 56-year-old former presidential guard member who insists he is innocent, launched an appeal in October prompting a six-week trial that wasdecided by nine jurors and three magistrates.

His legal team blasted the decision as “botched”.

“We were naive — we wanted to believe that he would not be sentenced in advance,” his lawyer Fabrice Epstein said as she left the court in Bobigny outside Paris.

She said the proceedings had been treated as a wider trial on the genocide that left more than 800,000 people dead, “rather than the trial of Mr Simbikangwa” alone.

Lawyers for the five activist groups that were civil parties in the case meanwhile left the courtroom to applause from supporters.

Alain Gauthier, head of the Civil Plaintiffs Collective for Rwanda, hailed the decision. “This legitimises the fight we've been leading for 20 years without any glory,” he said.

'A voice for victims'

The International Federation of Human Rights and Human Rights League, which were also among the civil parties, said the ruling gave a voice to “victims who have been waiting for justice to be done for more than 20 years”.

Previously, France, widely considered to have supported the Rwandan Hutu regime that carried out the bulk of the killings, had been accused of dragging its feet on prosecuting cases.

Since Simbikangwa went on trial, two other Rwandans have been prosecuted in France over the genocide — Octavien Ngenzi and Tito Barahira, who are both appealing life sentences they were handed in May.

Simbikangwa, who has been confined to a wheelchair since a car crash in the1980s, was accused of organising roadblocks where Hutu militia murdered many of their victims, mostly members of the Tutsi minority.

He was also accused of arming the militia.

“I was a soldier but after my accident I returned to civilian life,” he told the court earlier this week.

The three-month orgy of slaughter in Rwanda began when the plane of then president Juvenal Habyarimana, a Hutu, was shot down in April 1994.

Simbikangwa caused a sensation at his trial by declaring he had never seen any victims' bodies during the massacres.

His defence relied on the fact that the prosecution produced no direct witnesses to his alleged crimes.

Simbikangwa was arrested in 2008 on the French Indian Ocean island of Mayotte, where he had been living under a false identity.

RWANDA

Macron proposes day of commemoration for Rwanda genocide

French President Emmanuel Macron proposed an annual day of commemoration for the Rwanda genocide on Sunday as the African nation marked 25 years since the massacres of the minority Tutsi community.

Macron proposes day of commemoration for Rwanda genocide
African Union chief Moussa Faki, Rwanda's President Paul Kagame and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker at 25th Commemoration of the 1994 Genocide in Kigali, Rwanda on April 7. Photo: Y
The French leader expressed his “solidarity with the Rwandan people and his compassion for the victims and their families” in a statement that proposed April 7 as an annual remembrance day in France.
 
Macron drew criticism from some activists for failing to attend the start of commemoration events in Rwanda on Sunday, instead sending a personal envoy, a Rwandan-born MP Herve Berville who was orphaned in the 1993 violence.
 
A Rwandan victims' group, Ibuka France, hailed Macron's announcement of a national Rwanda genocide day and said it had suggested the idea during a meeting with the 41-year-old leader last week.
 
“My reaction is one of satisfaction,” the head of the group, Marcel Kabanda, said before adding that he hoped France would now introspect more about its role in the massacres.
 
“It's not the French population fundamentally, but the political elite that needs to talk about it more. It will take time but it's a new phase,” he told AFP.
 
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The genocide has cast a long shadow over Franco-Rwandan relations. Rwanda's current President Paul Kagame, a Tutsi, accuses France of having supported the ethnic Hutu forces behind most of the slaughter and of helping some of the perpetrators to escape.
 
On Friday, Macron announced the creation of a commission of historians and researchers that will delve into the French state's archives in a move intended to set the historical record straight.
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