PARIS (AP) — Paris court delivered France's first-ever conviction for genocide Friday, sentencing a Rwandan former intelligence chief to 25 years in prison over the 1994 killings of at least 500,000 people in the African country.
The landmark trial of 54-year-old Pascal Simbikangwa sets off what could be the first of dozens of French trials into one of the 20th century's greatest atrocities — two decades after it happened — and provides a judicial reckoning for a former colonial power that still has many ties to African countries like Mali, Central African Republic and beyond.
In a late-night verdict after 5 ½ weeks of trial, the nine-person jury found Simbikangwa guilty of genocide and complicity to crimes against humanity for killings in Kigali, the capital, while throwing out other counts involving killings in the western town of Gisenyi. His defense lawyers said they would discuss Saturday with Simbikangwa (Sim-BEE-kangh-wah) whether to appeal.
Defense lawyer Alexandra Bourgeot said she was "appalled" at the verdict, accusing the court of a poor understanding of the case and expressing bafflement at the "incoherency" that a genocide conviction would merit 25 years in prison. Simbikangwa, however, wasn't surprised at the verdict, she said: "He himself told us beforehand, 'I have lived through a lot of things that I can withstand.'"
Emmanuel Daoud, a lawyer for the International Federation of Human Rights, which lined up behind the state's case, declined to comment whether on the sentence suited the crime: "I don't have personal satisfaction knowing whether he got 25 years or a life sentence. What was important was the guilty verdict."
In many ways, the trial was less about a little-known man's role in a vast killing machine and more about a coming-to-terms with a judicial blindness in France, a country that sees itself as a paragon of human rights but has had its own culprits of crimes against humanity, such as during the Nazi occupation of France in World War II. Only a few years ago, such a trial might have been unthinkable — until a thaw in bilateral relations allowed for French investigators to start traveling to Rwanda to build their cases.
The trial wasn't likely to shed vast new light on the genocide: A U.N. tribunal and other courts have already sent dozens of defendants to prison, some for life. A key question was whether France could deliver a fair verdict on the subject of genocide in a country — Rwanda — that for years it was anything but impartial: Critics say France was too supportive of the Rwanda's Hutu-led government whose supporters carried out the genocide, and France turned a blind eye to the killings for too long.
Critics — many of them French citizens — say authorities from then-President Francois Mitterrand on down thought that France's strong support for the Hutu-led government was wise. Naively at best, those officials helped some perpetrators to flee Rwanda and others with ties to the genocide lived in France for years unpunished, the critics say.
French prosecutors are investigating about two dozen cases into Rwandans allegedly linked to the genocide, plus several others over alleged rape and complicity in genocide that haven't yet identified a defendant. A former military police officer, Paul Barril, is under investigation for allegedly having struck a deal to provide arms, munitions and training to Rwandan forces at the height of the massacres.
It is not yet clear when or if such cases will go to trial, but some sought to use the Simbikangwa trial to focus attention of the alleged French role in the genocide. Riot police encircled about 10 activists who shouted "France was complicit in Rwanda's genocide!" as they tried to demonstrate outside the courthouse. They didn't have the proper permit, and were escorted away, officials said.
The proceedings in the Simbikangwa trial were squarely focused on his own case. He insisted he never even saw any of the bodies that littered the country's roads and towns at the time. In a final appeal to the jury Friday morning, Simbikangwa insisted that the "authenticity of my innocence needs no more proof." He appealed to the jury's "conscience," and asked for a prayer for Tutsis and Hutus who died — though he showed no personal remorse.
"The real question is, 'what do I have to gain by saying that I didn't see any bodies?' Nothing," he said. "I ask only to be treated like a human being — no more."
Seated in a wheelchair in a glassed-in defendant's box, Simbikangwa flipped through handwritten notes as he invoked the memory of the "great men who built France" and cited philosophers Descartes and Montesquieu.
Said lawyer Daoud: "You don't lie to judges. Pascal Simbikangwa lied from start to finish, and he was penalized for it."
Of the two dozen or so cases linked to the Rwandan genocide being investigated in France, one involves the widow of President Juvenal Habyarimana, an ethnic Hutu. He died when his plane was shot down on April 6, 1994, setting of a torrent of reprisal slayings that became the genocide.
Simbikangwa, arrested in 2008 on the French island of Mayotte in the Indian Ocean, was initially accused of complicity in genocide and complicity in war crimes in 1994, but not of personally killing anyone. He has used a wheelchair since being injured in the mid-1980s, before the mass slaughter.