A Rwandan doctor is on trial in Paris, accused of complicity in the 1994 genocide. He denies the charges against him, but the plaintiffs say the case has symbolic significance.
April 6, 1994, was a tragic turning point in the history of Rwanda. That evening, Juvenal Habyarimana, the president of the central African country, was flying back from neighboring Tanzania when his plane was shot down by surface-to-air missiles as it came in to land in the capital, Kigali. All those on board perished; they also included the president of Burundi, Cyprien Ntaryamira.
The perpetrators of the attack have never been identified. However, the incident is seen as the catalyst for what became a three-month genocide, in which it is estimated that 500,000 to 1 million people were killed.
President Habyarimana was from Rwanda’s Hutu ethnic majority. The Tutsi minority were accused of carrying out the assassination, and the mass murder of Tutsis and moderate Hutus accused of colluding with them began shortly afterward.
On Tuesday, a gynecologist accused of facilitating mass murder in the southern Rwandan province of Butare, known today as Huye, will go on trial in Paris. This is the seventh trial relating to the Rwandan genocide that is taking place in France. The plaintiffs describe it as a case with symbolic significance.
The killings in Butare did not begin until about two weeks after the president’s assassination. It is estimated that more than 200,000 people were then murdered. The accused, Sosthene Munyemana, now 68, is a Hutu who lived in Butare at the time and was a practicing gynecologist at the university hospital.
By his own account, he fled Rwanda in mid-June 1994, heading first to the Democratic Republic of Congo and then to France. Munyemana, a father of three, has lived there with his family ever since. He has worked as a gynecologist in the Saint-Cyr hospital in the southwestern city of Villeneuve-sur-Lot since 2001.
Rwandan genocide: Complicit? Or unwitting?
The doctor now stands accused of complicity in genocide and crimes against humanity. He is alleged to have participated in both the preparation and the active commission of these crimes. Along with other prominent local people, he is said to have signed an open letter supporting the interim government that systematically orchestrated the genocide.
Munyemana is said to have been elected to a crisis committee that set up roadblocks in order to track down Tutsis. He is also accused of locking people in inhuman conditions in local government offices to which he had the key, and of assisting with their transportation.
Munyemana’s lawyer, Jean-Yves Dupeux, rejects these accusations. The open letter, he says, was dated April 16, at a time when massacres had not yet taken place in Butare. “My client thought the interim government could be a bulwark against the looming civil war,” Dupeux told DW. Furthermore, he claims that, though Munyemana did participate in the meeting on April 17, 1994, he was not elected to any official position, and that the purpose of the committee was to try to prevent massacres.
Dupeux said the final charge was based on a misunderstanding. According to him, his client received the keys to a local government office on April 23 so he could hide people there to prevent them from being killed. The mayor’s office then sent a van to pick them up.
“And, when the van arrived, [Munyemana] held the door open so the people could leave and get into the van,” Dupeux said. “This happened on four occasions. It’s true that apparently most of these people, who have not been identified, were killed, but my client knows nothing about this.”
He said the current Rwandan regime was pressuring witnesses to testify against his client, because he could potentially become a leader of the opposition. “If you read the recent report by Human Rights Watch, it says that the Rwandan regime is doing everything it can to silence potential opponents living abroad, literally or figuratively,” Dupeux said.
‘Sense of legitimacy’
Judge Aurelia Devos, who chaired the specialized unit for crimes against humanity and war crimes at the Paris Prosecution Office for 10 years, said she had heard this argument too many times.
“We regularly see this with these sorts of crimes, whose perpetrators very often feel a sense of legitimacy, that they were defending their system, defending their state,” Devos said. “All the Rwandan accused who appeared before the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda [in Tanzania, 1995-2015] used this type of defense: I am being prosecuted for political reasons, and the witnesses have evidently been coached for the purpose.”
Alain Gauthier also doubts the claims of political pressure. The co-founder of the Collective of Civil Parties for Rwanda (CPCR), which represents 25 civil plaintiffs in the trial, told DW that “we are often in Rwanda, and I personally have never witnessed anyone being subjected to pressure of this kind.”
Gauthier has attended many trials, but he said this one had particular symbolic significance. “This time the person on trial is a doctor, whose vocation is normally to treat and care for people,” he said. “He stands accused of having facilitated the killing of a large number of people. They’ve tried a soldier, mayors, a militiaman, a policeman — but trying a doctor is new.”
A strong French signal
Nicola Palmer, a lecturer in law at King’s College London who has studied the Rwandan genocide since 2006, said the French judiciary had a special role to play. “My current project tracks cases against genocide suspects that are happening outside of Rwanda,” Palmer said. “At the moment, I have 120 cases in 20 different countries around the world.” Thirty-two of these cases were initiated in France.
Palmer said this was the final stage of seeking justice in the aftermath of genocide, which she describes as the transnational period. “The initial trials were before the ICTR at the international level,” Palmer said. “Then, we had extensive domestic processes at the national courts and local level, and now we’ve seen this final wave of a real push for accountability for individuals who fled Rwanda.”
Devos said France had a moral responsibility to adjudicate such cases — even if, as with this one, their complexity and a lack of personnel means that they drag on for decades. Civil parties first filed a lawsuit against Munyemana in France in 1995.
“According to a French prohibition on retroactivity, we can’t extradite someone accused of genocide to Rwanda, because there was no law on genocide there at the time,” Devos said. “That’s why we must bring cases like these to trial here.” France rejected a request for Munyemana’s extradition in 2010: Rwandan village courts had previously sentenced him in absentia to life imprisonment.
Roger Koude, a professor of international law in Lyon and the head of the UNESCO research project Memory, Cultures and Interculturality, told DW that court proceedings outside Rwanda serve another purpose, too. His project, he says, focuses on memory, to ensure that the Rwandan genocide is not forgotten.
“Our mission is also to work concretely to prevent crimes against humanity,” Koude said. “Numerous studies have shown that there are clear risks of genocide in the world, with major trends in certain regions, notably Africa, the Middle East, Asia, etc.” Koude said trials such as the one in Paris could help to prevent future genocides.
“The crime of genocide is a crime against humanity. In other words, it is a crime that concerns the entire international community,” he said.
“The international community as a whole and individual states are committed to ensuring that there is no impunity for crimes against humanity, because the alleged perpetrators of these crimes are not safe anywhere in the world, and have no place of refuge or escape from justice,” he added.
The verdict is expected to be announced on December 19.
This article was originally written in German.