With a hoist from two bailiffs, Rwanda's disabled former intelligence chief was placed in a courtroom wheelchair Tuesday — and France opened its first trial over the African country's genocide.
The trial of Pascal Simbikangwa, 54, may not reveal much new about the systematic killing of ethnic Tutsis and Hutu moderates by radical Hutus in 1994. Books on the genocide have been written, rivers of tears shed, and documentary films made. A U.N. war crimes tribunal and other courts have already sent dozens to prison — some for life.
But the Simbikangwa case redeems years of efforts in France by activist groups and other critics who say French officials turned a blind eye to the slaughter, helped some perpetrators to flee Rwanda, and let untold numbers of Rwandans with ties to the genocide live in France for years unpunished.
Few critics have missed the fact that France, a country generally proud of its human rights record, is opening the first genocide trial it has ever held, just as the U.N. tribunal is preparing to end its work.
More than two dozen cases linked to the Rwandan genocide are still being investigated in France.
On Tuesday, Simbikangwa, who is infirm from an auto accident in 1986, was wheeled into a glassed-in area in the courtroom, identifying himself as "Pascal Safari" — an apparent combination of his real name and his alias, Senyamuhara Safari, according to court documents.
Wearing a tan leather jacket, baggy pants and sneakers, he variously slouched in his wheelchair, scribbled notes, or whispered to his defense lawyers.
Simbikangwa, who was arrested in 2008 on the French island of Mayotte in the Indian Ocean, is accused of complicity in genocide and complicity in war crimes in 1994 — but not of personally killing anyone.
Presiding Judge Olivier Leurent went over the history of the genocide and claims against Simbikangwa, such as that he was involved in torture, had armed and trained soldiers, and encouraged them to kill.
Simbikangwa denies the charges, and his lawyers are seeking an acquittal. They have expressed concern that the trial, set to last until March 28, will be lopsided — in part because of the difficulty in finding witnesses who will speak out in his defense.
Several human rights groups as well as the Collective of Civil Parties for Rwanda, which has worked for 13 years to bring such a case to French courts, are among several civil parties: independent plaintiffs who are supporting the state's case.
"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 with her husband Alain set up the collective in 2001. She says she lost at least 80 family members in the genocide.
France had close ties to the government of Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana, an ethnic Hutu who was killed when his plane was shot down in 1994. His death set off a torrent of reprisal slayings that left at least 500,000 people dead in just over 100 days — what has been called the 20th century's fastest genocide.
Civil parties say Simbikangwa, who came from the same town as Habyarimana and was allegedly a relative, was in the president's inner circle. From at least one roadway checkpoint in Kigali, he is alleged to have incited the army to identify and slaughter Tutsis.
"Today's trial in Paris ... will be an important moment in the global fight against impunity," said Leslie Haskell, international justice counsel for Human Rights Watch.
France was condemned by the European Court of Human Rights in 2004 for acting too slowly to prosecute one case related to the Rwanda genocide case.
A French trait for "ill-founded self-certainties" that engulfed "the administration, the army and the diplomatic corps" was to blame, said French former Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, who traveled to Rwanda several times during the genocide as a humanitarian aid activist.
Rwanda broke off political relations with France after a French magistrate filed charges against allies of President Paul Kagame, whose Tutsi-led forces took power after the genocide ended in July 1994.
A political thaw starting in 2009 — when Kouchner was foreign minister — paved the way for French investigators to visit Rwanda and start building cases.
In 2012, the Paris court opened a war-crimes division that has regularly sent investigators to Rwanda. The Simbikangwa trial is just the start. The division is investigating 27 other cases — one focusing on Habyarimana's widow.
"France now has the tools it needs to ensure (that) perpetrators of the world's most serious crimes don't escape justice or find a safe haven in the country," Human Rights Watch's Haskell said in a statement.
Masha Macpherson in Paris contributed to this report.