Life sentence sought in France's first Rwanda genocide trial

Life sentence sought in France's first Rwanda genocide trial
An undated file picture released by Interpol shows Pascal Simbikangwa, a former Rwandan army captain arrested on the French island of Mayotte in 2008.

PARIS - 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.

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