France Convicts Rwandan for Crimes Against Humanity
March 14, 2014
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After six weeks of hearings, a “great victory” for the victims of the Rwandan genocide was won today when the Criminal Court in Paris convicted fugitive Rwandan Pascal Simbikangwa of the crime of genocide and being complicit to crimes against humanity for his actions during the Rwandan genocide in 1994. Simbikangwa, a 54 year old Hutu man who lived in Kigali during the war, was an intelligence officer during the genocide and was accused of supplying weapons and giving orders to the Interahamwe militia in Kigali and encouraging them to slaughter Tutsis. He was also known to have had tight connections with the death squads as well as with the Akazu, a secret and elite Hutu corps within Mr. Habyarimana’s inner circle. He was originally sought under an arrest warrant in 2008 and was not apprehended until 2009 on the island of Mayotte, a French territory in the Indian Ocean. Despite being bound to a wheelchair and fervently denying his involvement in the genocide, French prosecutors sentenced Simbikangwa to 25 years in prison in the landmark decision.
This case is significant because it marks the first time that a Rwandan fugitive accused of genocide was convicted of his crimes in France. Under international law, a country can claim criminal jurisdiction over a person who committed genocide regardless of where it was committed, yet France has been notoriously criticized for its lack of response following the 1994 genocide. Since 1994, other European countries such as Belgium, Norway, and Sweden have all convicted Rwandan fugitives accused of genocide. With France’s decision, however, it will open the way for more than 20 upcoming prosecutions against fugitive Rwandan officials accused of genocide. After the RPF took control of the government at the end of the genocide, many upper- and mid-officials fled to new countries to escape being tried and have escaped accountability for their actions. Yet, is justice of this truly such a “great victory” like many believe? Rwandan criticisms for the ICTR have been well documented, yet even that justice is much more direct that the offshoot justice served in a French court that is far separated from the Rwandan people and survivors. Should France have sent Simbikangwa back to Rwanda to be tried in his local courts once they apprehended him in 2009? Would putting him through the gacaca system (back in 2009) have been better for the survivors of the genocide–having him openly admit to his crimes–than relegating him to a French prison in front of French spectators? Does where he is persecuted matter as long as he is held accountable for his crimes, even if its done by a foreign government?