Rwandan president's widow arrested on genocide charges

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French police have arrested the widow of Rwanda's assassinated ex-president, who is wanted in her homeland as one of the alleged masterminds of the 1994 genocide. The World's Jeb Sharp has the story.

MARCO WERMAN: I'm Marco Werman and this is the World. French authorities arrested a key figure from Rwanda's genocide. Agathe Habyarimana is the widow of former Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana. His death, in a plane crash, set in motion the 1994 genocide and his widow is accused of helping to plan and direct the mass killings. The World's Jeb Sharp has more.

JEB SHARP: Rwandans have long found it galling that Agathe Habyarimana was living the life of a free woman, especially in a country they considered complicit in the genocide. Andrew Wallace is the author of Silent Accomplice, the Untold Story of France's Role in the Rwandan Genocide.

ANDREW WALLACE: This is a woman most people would say was the head of the Akazu. The Akazu was the group that planned the genocide and yet, she was welcomed to Paris by Mitterand, with flowers and with a big check and with a nice house where she's lived a comfortable life.

SHARP: Although perhaps less comfortable in recent years as French authorities began investigating her role in the genocide more closely. They finally denied her permanent political asylum last year. Today, the Rwandan Minister of Justice, Tharcisse Karugarama praised France for cooperating on Agathe Habyarimana's arrest.

INTERPRETER: We congratulate the judicial authorities in France for taking this step so that she answers the legal questions which are very strong regarding the role she played in the planning of the genocide in Rwanda. We are happy that the long arm of justice will finally do its work.

SHARP: The arrest may be a result of a growing rapprochement between France and Rwanda. French President Nicholas Sarkozy was in Rwanda last week. While he stopped short of apologizing for France's role in the genocide, it was clear Rwandan authorities welcomed the visit. Here's what Rwandan President Paul Kagame said at the time.

PAUL KAGAME: It is important for the people of Rwanda and France to build a new relationship and partnership best on the understanding and proper management and treatment of the truth.

SHARP: As for the truth about Agathe Habyarimana, her arrest may finally lead to a trial that will examine the evidence against her. Investigative journalist Linda Melvern has written two books about the Rwandan genocide. She said Habyarimana was a big player in the Hutu power movement. She came from a prominent northern family that provided her husband, former Rwandan President, Juvenal Habyarimana with much of his political strength.

LINDA MELVERN: The Commission of Refugees in France that actually looked at her case have evidence from witnesses that she was the heart of the regime and was guilty of crimes perpetrated not only during the genocide, but in 1973 when her husband carried out the coup when he first seized power. It was said to be a bloodless coup, but it was not. The previous regime was eliminated.

SHARP: The Rwandan genocide was triggered after a plane crash that killed President Habyarimana. It happened just as he was poised to implement a power-sharing agreement that was part of an international peace deal for Rwanda. Those opposed to the peace deal had already planned the genocide and his death was the spark that set off the killing. Linda Melvern says it's important to remember that the genocide was a political conspiracy.

MELVERN: And this woman stood at the heart of that conspiracy and if witness testimony is to be believed, that first evening she picked off the names of the pro-democrats who were being killed. She determined to retain power for her family in that country by eliminating the group they were to share power with.

SHARP: Another noted authority on the genocide, the late Alison Des Forge wrote that witnesses present in the first two days after the plan crash declared that Agathe Habyarimana and her circle followed events closely and rejoiced when they announced the death of one of another opponent. Habyarimana was released on bail today just a few hours after she was arrested. It's not clear yet whether French authorities plan to extradite her to Rwanda. That's certainly what Rwandan Justice Minister Tharcisse Karugarama would like to see.

KARUGARAMA: The best would be to try her here where the architecture work of genocide was designed. To see justice for the Rwandans and to see justice being done directly and the Rwandans witnessing that justice is being done.

SHARP: But a lawyer for Agathe Habyarimana suggested today she would fight any extradition effort. For The World, I'm Jeb Sharp.