A French court opened trial Tuesday against former Rwandan intelligence chief Pascal Simbikangwa in the country's first trial of a suspect in the 1994 Rwanda Genocide [BBC backgrounder]. Simbikangwa, 54, is charged [Reuters report] with arming and directing Hutu extremists in the violence that claimed the lives of an estimated half a million ethnic Tutsi. He was arrested in 2008 while in hiding on the French island of Mayotte. A paraplegic since 1986, Simbikangwa faces a potential life sentence for complicity in the genocide and crimes against humanity. The current president of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, has accused France of supporting the Hutu militia and harboring fugitives who fled to France in the years following the genocide. This trial is seen as an important first step in repairing relations between the embittered nations.
France has only recently joined the US and other European nations in trying and extraditing individuals found to have aided or been complicit in the Rwanda Genocide. A French appeals court in November agreed to extradite [JURIST report] two genocide suspects, one of whom had been a French citizen since 2010. In September a French court refused to extradite [JURIST report] an Hutu ex-colonel, citing the statute of limitations preventing extradition for crimes committed more than 10 years ago. In April French law enforcement arrested [JURIST report] a former Rwanda leader in the same week that Simbikangwa was ordered to stand trial. Rwanda genocide suspects have also been arrested in 2013 in New Hampshire, the Netherlands and Norway [JURIST reports].