PARIS — In an unprecedented step, a French court opened a genocide trial Tuesday against a former Rwandan intelligence chief in the first of what could be several prosecutions of former officials and others who fled Rwanda after the 1994 slaughter there.
Many here consider the trial of the former intelligence official, Pascal Simbikangwa, 54, an important effort by France to end its long-standing protection of Rwandan fugitives accused of participating in the ethnic genocide that killed 800,000 people, mostly ethnic Tutsis, in just 100 days.
On Tuesday, Simbikangwa, who had been sought under an international arrest warrant since 2008, appeared before a panel of judges in Paris to face accusations of “complicity in genocide and crimes against humanity” for acts perpetrated in Rwanda from April to July 1994. If convicted, Simbikangwa could face a life sentence. He was arrested in 2009 on the island of Mayotte, a French territory in the Indian Ocean, where he had been hiding for several years.
In his initial indictment, Judge Olivier Leurent quoted neighbors of Simbikangwa who said they had seen him storing weapons at his home in 1994, and others who had heard him lashing out at members of the minority Tutsi ethnic group. Simbikangwa is a Hutu, the ethnic majority that dominated the government.
Leurent quoted a witness as saying that Simbikangwa had been “the strongman of the neighborhood and had a real authority on the Interahamwe militia.” The Interahamwe was the Hutu militia that carried out the 1994 genocide against the Tutsis.
Everything about the trial is exceptional: its length, the circumstances under which it is being held and the number of scheduled witnesses. It is expected to last seven weeks, and judges are scheduled to hear from 53 witnesses, including the defendant’s former neighbors in Kigali, the Rwandan capital.
French historians and former Rwandan officials are also expected to testify. The trial is scheduled to conclude with testimony from Tharcisse Renzaho, a former politician and prefect, a government position, who was sentenced to life in prison by the United Nations’ International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. Renzaho is a Hutu.
France, which has long been accused of providing military training to the Hutus, has never before tried anyone accused of complicity in the Rwandan genocide. After restoring diplomatic relations with Rwanda in 2009, Paris appointed five judges to investigate the matter of the Rwandan fugitives and opened a police section specializing in crimes of genocide.
In addition, there are five human rights organizations that have filed a civil case against Simbikangwa.
On Tuesday, the civil plaintiffs included the Collective of Civil Plaintiffs for Rwanda, the group that first found Simbikangwa in Mayotte and filed a complaint against him.
“I am especially dedicating this trial to the anonymous victims of Pascal Simbikangwa, those without a name, a grave. This is for them today,” said Dafroza Gauthier, who founded the collective with her husband, Alain, in 2001.
On Tuesday, Simbikangwa, who was paralyzed after a car accident in 1986 and appeared in court in a wheelchair, listened carefully to the judge’s indictment but showed no emotion. He has steadfastly denied any involvement in the genocide and his lawyers said that he would plead not guilty.
In Europe, several countries — including Belgium, a former colonial overseer of Rwanda, and Norway — have already brought Rwandans to justice.