In the most thrilling detective cases, the killer never quite covers his tracks well enough, and an overlooked misstep ends up ensnaring him. In France, a landmark trial has played out with similar drama—pitting a crime-stalking husband and wife duo in a game of cat and mouse with a former Rwandan intelligence captain—with a similarly victorious ending.
For just-convicted genocidal architect Pascal Simbikangwa, the first telltale clue to his whereabouts came from a postmarked location on pieces of mail he was sending back to Rwanda. The letters came from the French island of Mayotte where he was living under a false name, and some of them were said to be directed at survivors of the country’s genocide. Unluckily for Simbikangwa, he had two very devoted war criminal hunters on his trail long before the law caught up with him.
Late Friday evening, a French jury convicted Simbikangwa of complicity in genocide and crimes against humanity, sentencing him to 25 years behind bars.
For the past six weeks, the Palais de Justice in Paris has been host to this watershed trial. The case marks the first time France has put an alleged perpetrator on trial for Rwanda’s genocide, which left between an estimated 800,000 dead over 100 days of bloodshed in 1994. Critics have long accused the French government of turning a blind eye and even abetting the genocidal regime during one of the worst massacres of the 20th century.
Fifty-four-year-old Simbikangwa, who served a captain of intelligence services in Rwanda’s military during that time, was being tried for genocide and accused of inciting, aiding, and organizing massacres by distributing arms and orders to murderous militias. His turn in the courtroom comes at a particularly poignant moment—on April 6, Rwanda will commemorate the 20th anniversary of its genocide.
Alain and Dafroza Gauthier had been hunting Simbikangwa since 2006. They believed he was hiding out in a French territory and knew of his notoriously cruel streak. He had been sending what Dafroza describes as threatening letters to survivors, accusing them of being liars and manipulators, writing that he should have killed them when he had the chance, and saying he regretted they survived. Some of the postmarks traced back to Mayotte—he certainly wasn’t laying low or covering his tracks. “They feel protected in France,” CPCR board member Bruce Clarke says of Simbikangwa and other wanted war crime suspects.
The Gauthiers head the 200 volunteer-strong Collective of Civil Plaintiffs for Rwanda (CPCR), which they started more than a decade ago with no judicial background: 65-year-old Alain was a teacher and 59-year-old Dafroza is a chemical engineer. The couple met in Rwanda, Dafroza’s native country, when Alain was teaching French, and had already moved to France when the genocide broke out. After watching cases go to trial in other countries, they realized the French weren’t building similar cases, so they began independently tracking down war criminals in French territories. Simbikangwa’s trial is not just a landmark moment for France, but for CCPR as well, which has been working on court cases since 2001, but has not brought a case to court until now.
In 2008, Simbikangwa was arrested in Mayotte on separate charges of forging papers, but an investigation surfaced his name on Interpol’s wanted list. CPCR, which had been compiling evidence against him since 2006, before his exact location was known, filed official suit in 2009. CPCR is one of five civil parties represented in Simbikangwa’s trial.
Until now, of the 100 or so Rwandan war crimes cases that have been prosecuted outside Rwanda, none have taken place in France. And this trial was widely seen as long-overdue recompense for the country’s negligence in 1994.
“It is history being made. We have always wondered why it has taken 20 years…it is late, but it is a good sign,” Rwandan Justice Minister Johnston Busingye said when the trial opened on Feb. 4.
Simbikangwa’s trial saw around 30 witnesses take the stand, including a number of survivors who lived near the defendant and a handful who claimed to have been tortured or imprisoned by him (though he’s not being charged with those crimes). Dafroza called their testimony “a very emotional moment and strong moment when you see these people condemned to death [but] they survived and can tell their story.”
Simbikangwa denies any involvement and his lawyers posit their client was unaware of the massacre taking place. Dafroza recalls a specific testimony by a Tutsi who had worked for Simbikangwa as a domestic worker, and the defendant’s assertion that he had never met the other man before. “People were telling horrendous stories and he was laughing in his box and scoffing,” she says. “No remorse, no emotion.”
An especially bizarre moment came early on in the trial when Simbikangwa proclaimed he never saw a single corpse over the course of a genocide during which six Rwandans were estimated to be killed every minute.
“We have the impression that because it is the 20th anniversary of the genocide against the Tutsis, Pascal Simbikangwa has to be convicted as an example,” the defense said in an early statement, citing “monstrous pressure from the civil parties who initiated the case.” As the trial closed on Friday, Simbikangwa, who is in a wheelchair from an accident before the genocide, addressed the jury: The “authenticity of my innocence needs no more proof,” he said. “I ask only to be treated like a human being—no more.”
“He is a psychopath; it’s like the Eichmann trial,” says Clarke, referring to the proceedings of Nazi leader Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem. The current case does strike a parallel storyline to those post-World War II tribunals, most notably for the prosecution’s war crime-hunting couple who have been compared to famed Nazi hunters Serge and Beate Klarsfeld. It’s also the first trial being filmed in its entirety in France for many years.
The main sources for the investigations against fugitive genocidaires have been those currently serving sentences for war crimes in Rwanda. Testimony from these fellow criminals has much more weight in court than victim testimony, which can be unreliable, says Clarke.
This part of the job is especially taxing for Dafroza, who lost 80 members of her family in the war. “It’s very difficult to listen to what these killers are saying because I can’t stay calm,” she says. “They talk about horrors and atrocities and it’s very hard to stay calm and ask rational questions—I need the guys, I need testimony for justice.”
On Wednesday, the public prosecutors were so convinced of the strength of the case’s evidence, they requested a change in Simbikangwa’s charge from complicity in crimes of genocide to genocide.
The next night, the Gauthiers and a number of colleagues had dinner and drinks after a long day in court and the moment of reckoning looming ahead. They were “99 percent” sure of a victory and hoped for a life sentence. As they ate, they spoke of how their work how grown from dull legal tasks to a landmark trial, says Clarke, who’s also an activist and artist. “Suddenly we realized, we’ve actually made history.”
“Everyone says tomorrow’s the end, but in fact, tomorrow’s the beginning,” Clarke said on Thursday. The CPCR has 25 other cases in various stages of preparation, a dozen of which are strong enough for trial, awaiting their time in the courtroom. According to international law, war crimes can be tried at any time, and Clarke fears how the French judicial system drags its feet, only making a move on cases when prompted by other legal factors.
In September, a Rwandan colonel wanted for genocide crimes was denied extradition by a French court and released. In February, France denied three more cases of extradition to Rwanda. The relative expediency of Simbikangwa’s case was due to his arrest on different charges and France’s inability to detain him indefinitely without releasing him or setting a trial date. Clarke notes there are many suspected war criminals who are living under only mild surveillance in France. “They’re free to live their lives,” he says.
But Simbikangwa’s guilty verdict could change that. “There will be a lot of pressure now—once the first guy has been brought to court, politicians or the public are going to ask questions: ‘Why aren’t other people being brought to court?’ Clarke says. “You’ve got more wanted genocide suspects in France than any other countries.”
“They’re going to realize people are under investigation for very strong cases, and they can’t go back,” Dafroza says. She’s confident in the judicial system of her country, which, “for the moment is France,” though she and her husband are building a home in Rwanda.
On Friday, Dafroza’s confidence in the system was redeemed. And now, they await a potential appeals process while continuing to chip away at piles of litigation. The cases Dafroza most wants to see come to court are two she and her husband have spent nearly 20 years investigating. One is against a gynecologist who lives comfortably in southern France, but is known in Rwanda as the “butcher of Tumba.” The other was sentenced in absentia by a Rwandan court to life in prison, but was twice released by French courts and is currently under investigation.
“It’s enormous satisfaction for CPCR, but even bigger satisfaction for the victims and those who suffered,” Dafroza says. “It’s not just the association that’s happy with this situation—it’s justice for the victims, that is, in fact, the real reward or recompense for this.”