PARIS - The landmark trial of a former Rwandan army captain charged with complicity in the genocide that left 800,000 dead opened Tuesday in Paris, the first of its kind in France.
The trial of Pascal Simbikangwa -- who denies all accusations against him -- is being closely watched in France, which has long stood accused of failing to rein in the Rwandan regime at the time of the 100-day genocide in 1994.
The 54-year-old defendant appeared in court in a wheelchair after a 1986 car accident that left him a paraplegic. He faces life in prison.
Arrested in 2008 on the French Indian Ocean island of Mayotte, he is accused of inciting, organising and aiding massacres during the genocide, particularly by supplying arms and instructions to militia who were manning road blocks and killing Tutsi men, women and children.
"I was a captain in the Rwandan army then in the intelligence services," Simbikangwa, a small, bald man wearing a brown jacket and white tracksuit bottoms, told the court in a brief opening statement.
After his arrest, France refused to extradite him to Rwanda, as it has done in previous cases, and decided to try him under laws that allow French courts to consider cases of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes committed in other countries.
The trial is expected to last six to eight weeks and, in a rare case for France, will be filmed, with recordings available once the case is concluded.
Rwandan Justice Minister Johnston Busingye welcomed the opening of the trial.
"It is history being made. We have always wondered why it has taken 20 years... it is late, but it is a good sign," he said.
Simbikangwa acknowledges being close to the regime of Hutu president Juvenal Habyarimana, whose assassination on April 6, 1994, unleashed the genocide, in which most of the victims were members of the minority Tutsi community.
But he denies participating in or organising massacres.
Havugimana, who survived the Kesho massacre, stands at the memorial. PHOTO/AFP
Here, he shows some of the clothes of victims of the Kesho massacre. PHOTO/AFP
He was initially charged with genocide and crimes against humanity but the charges were downgraded to complicity.
His lawyers have attacked the prosecution's case as being based purely on unchallenged witness accounts.
In a statement released prior to the opening of the trial, Alexandra Bourgeot and Fabrice Epstein said Simbikangwa was being made a "scapegoat" for the genocide on the approach of its 20th anniversary.
But Simon Foreman, a lawyer who represents civil parties in the case, said the charge of complicity "in no way diminishes the responsibility" of Simbikangwa, whom he described as "a cog in a mechanism operated by others".
Alain Gauthier, chairman of the group of civil parties in the case (CPCR), said the opening of the trial was a "big relief."
"We have denounced the role of France enough times, now we will see what justice says," he said Tuesday.
The charges against Simbikangwa are connected to incidents in the Rwandan capital Kigali and his native Gisenyi region in the northwest.
Prosecutors abandoned an attempt to also implicate him in an April 1994 massacre at Kesho Hill in Gisenyi, because witness accounts of his role only came in years later and were marked by contradictions.
About 1,400 Tutsis were killed at Kesho, many of them in a church where women, children and the elderly had taken refuge.