Conflict & Justice

Rwanda's former intel chief, on trial in France, is accused of personally torturing people from his wheelchair

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Credit: Charles Platiau/Reuters

A fireman installs the wheelchair of former Rwandan army captain Pascal Simbikangwa before the start of his trial at a Paris court.

Rwanda's 1994 genocide might seem like old history now.

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(This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.)

Think of it this way, today's high school students weren't even born then.

But that history is still on trial -- literally.

Tuesday in France, the trial of Pascal Simbikangwa began.

He's a former Rwandan intelligence chief charged with supplying arms and instructions to militia who were manning the road blocks where many Rwandans were slaughtered two decades ago.

Simbikangwa denies all of the charges.

The proceedings mark the first time someone who is reportedly linked to the genocide will appear before a French court.

New Yorker staff writer Philip Gourevitch has been following the trial of the former Rwanda Army captain. 

"There are terrible stories of him going up into the hills to where he had a farm in the northwest and making people kneel beside his chair so he could beat them," Gourevitch says. He notes that Simbikangwa allegedly is one of the "brains" behind the propaganda station Radio Mille Collines which directed listeners to murder Tutsis and moderate Hutus in 1994.

"He was reported to have gone to a lot of roadblocks which were the places a lot of the killings were taking place - they were the locust for it -and urging people on in their killing of Tutsis," Gourevitch adds. 

Simbikangwa was living under an alias on France's Indian Ocean island of Mayotte when he was arrested in 2008. He was charged with running a clandestine operation that produced false identity papers for fellow Rwandan fugitives. 

Rwanda was never a French colony. But France has had a special relationship with it, and many Rwandans fled to France after the 1994 slaughter. Rwandan genocide survivors accuse France of offering refuge to those who were behind the killing, and protecting suspects who live within its borders. 

Given those accusations, Gourevitch says it's significant that France is prosecuting Simbikangwa on its own soil.

"It's not the first genocide trail in the world, but it's the first that really closes down that enormous space that France had given for a kind of leeway and ambiguity in the contest over the history of the genocide," he says.

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