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Rwanda genocide: Paris drops investigation into attack of plane carrying Habyarimana

By Romain Gras
Posted on Monday, 6 July 2020 17:37

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The airplane of Rwanda's former President Juvénal Habyarimana after it crashed before landing at Kigali airport on 6 April 1994 ( Archives Jeune Afrique-REA)

The Paris Court of Appeal confirmed the dismissal of the investigation into the attack that brought down the plane carrying Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana on 6 April 1994. The case has poisoned French-Rwandan relations for more than 20 years now.

It’s one of the most sensitive chapters of French-Rwandan relations that came to a close on 3 July before the Paris Court of Appeal. On that day, French judges confirmed the dismissal of the investigation into the attack that took the life of President Juvénal Habyarimana on the evening of 6 April 1994 and sparked off the Tutsi genocide.

“It’s a relief but we don’t feel a great deal of satisfaction either,” said Bernard Maingain, the lawyer representing all of the suspects alongside Léon Lef-Forster. “For one, it’s not the end of the road, and we must admit that if this case has gone on for so long, it’s because certain participants have persistently tried to corrupt the proceedings,” he added.

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Philippe Meilhac, the lawyer representing the former Rwandan president’s widow, Agathe Habyarimana, said, for his part: “It’s a disappointment but it doesn’t come as a surprise. The French judiciary has basically resigned itself to drop the case in order to improve diplomatic relations between France and Rwanda.”

Ever since the case was referred to the French courts in August 1997 by the daughter of one of the French victims of the crash that brought down the president’s Falcon jet, and the opening in March 1998 of a judicial inquiry entrusted to the anti-terrorism unit of the Regional Court of Paris, the case has continued to poison relations between the two countries.

After initial leaks published in the French daily newspaper Le Monde in March 2004, just a few days before the 10th anniversary of the genocide, the fracture between Paris and Kigali was consummated two and a half years later.

READ MORE Genocide in Rwanda: The mechanisms of denial

On 22 November 2006, Judge Jean-Louis Bruguière, who based his investigation primarily on witness accounts from officials working under the genocidal regime and from former RPF (Rwandan Patriotic Front) soldiers claiming to have perpetrated the attack, issued nine arrest warrants targeting Rwandan dignitaries. Among them was James Kabarebe, who currently serves as Paul Kagame’s adviser after spending eight years as his defence minister.

In Kigali, Judge Bruguière’s move set off a wave of anger because the French magistrate was not only accusing the rebel movement, led at the time by Kagame, of being responsible for planning and carrying out the attack on the president’s jet, but also clearly implying that the RPF acted in such a way in order to trigger the genocide of the Tutsis, with the ulterior motive of taking over the government.

An ease in tensions

Kigali broke off diplomatic relations with Paris before responding, several months down the road, by setting up an investigating committee to look into France’s role in the genocide. The committee’s conclusions, issued in August 2008, come off as a direct reply to Judge Bruguière’s inquiry: 13 French political leaders, including Hubert Védrine, Secretary General to the President at the time of the events, were implicated for “complicity in the genocide”.

Tensions did not let up until the controversial magistrate was replaced in 2007 by Marc Trévidic and Nathalie Poux, and the start of Nicolas Sarkozy’s term of office that same year. Spurred by Bernard Kouchner, Foreign Minister at the time, the new French president embarked upon a reconciliation with Rwanda which led to a brief state visit in Kigali in 2010. At the same time, the judicial inquiry got a fresh start.

In 2011, for the first time since the case had been initiated, the French judges travelled to Rwanda, accompanied by several ballistics, aviation accident and geometry experts. Released to the public in early 2012, their report contradicted most of the conclusions that Judge Bruguière had reached.

According to the expert assessments contained in the report, the two surface-to-air missiles used in the attack were fired from within – or in the surrounding area of – the Kanombe military base, run by Rwanda’s government army. This new information thereby ruled out the theory of a commando operation conducted by the RPF. The most likely scenario shifted back to that of a coup d’état committed by Hutu Power extremists to overthrow Habyarimana.

When the case was reopened seven months later to hear the testimony of Kayumba Nyamwasa, the ex-head of Rwandan military intelligence who later became a leader of the Rwanda National Congress (RNC), an armed opposition movement hostile to Kigali, it brought about a new diplomatic rift between the two countries.

Odd sense of timing

The judges could not reach a definitive conclusion based on all of these procedural twists and turns, the waywardness in the initial years of the investigation and the contradictory testimonies involving witnesses who at times vanished altogether. Twenty-six years after the events, the attack on Habyarimana’s plane remains a mystery.

READ MORE Following the trail to capturing Rwandan genocide fugitive Félicien Kabuga

“Due to a lack of irrefutable material evidence, the charges against those under investigation are only corroborated by witness statements,” wrote judges Jean-Marc Herbaut and Nathalie Poux, the most recent individuals to be entrusted with the case, in December 2018 in their decision to dismiss the case. Deeming the witness testimonies gathered throughout the proceedings to be “overwhelmingly contradictory and unverifiable”, they concluded that none of the allegations were sufficiently proven to allow the investigation to proceed.

Since the beginning of this unprecedented case, the French judiciary has always exhibited a rather odd sense of timing in announcing its decisions. After the court’s order to dismiss the case was made public on 12 October 2018, on the eve of the election of Rwanda’s Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo as Secretary General of the International Organisation of La Francophonie (Organisation internationale de la Francophonie – OIF), and the proceedings were formally closed on 24 December – Christmas Eve – the court of appeal judges handed down their ruling on the eve of 4 July, the anniversary of the RPF’s victory over the perpetrators of the genocide.

For its part, according to an official source, Rwanda’s government did not “wish to make a comment on the ruling”.

Upcoming appointment of a French ambassador to Rwanda

Was the dropping of the inquiry the final move that needed to be made ahead of the appointment of a new French ambassador in Kigali? Since Michel Flesch’s departure in 2015, the post has remained completely unfilled.

Rwanda’s government has said that it is willing to host a French representative to move forward with the reconciliation initiated when Macron took over the presidency, but in veiled terms, Kigali revealed that this normalisation comes with strings attached, without elaborating further.

After the visit by a group of French MPs in 2019 during the ceremony commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Tutsi genocide, the creation of a commission of historians – whose membership was controversial – on France’s role in the genocide, and an increasing number of projects between the French Development Agency (Agence française de développement – AFD) and Rwanda, disposing of the probe into the attack of 6 April 1994 appears to be the final step in this thawing of relations.

When asked about the consequences a reopening of the case could have, Kagame replied: “What do people hope to discover that has not been said and settled for years now? Reopening a classified file, that invites problems. And why in France? By whom and on what grounds? So yes, it depends. If these things are not brought to light for once and for all, our relations are highly likely to suffer from it in one way or another.”

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