Fighting For Rwanda's Justice In France
For more than a decade, Dafroza Gauthier and her husband, Alain, have hunted perpetrators of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. More than 800,000 people were killed in the genocide, most of them members of the Tutsi ethnic group.
Earlier this month, the couple gave testimony against former Rwandan intelligence chief Pascal Simbikangwa in Paris. On March 14, Simbikangwa was sentenced to 25 years in prison for complicity in genocide and crimes against humanity. His was the first Rwandan genocide trial to take place in France.
The conviction can be credited, in part, to the independent investigation conducted by an organization led by the Gautheirs, the Collective of Civil Plaintiffs for Rwanda. The group lends legal aid to victims of the killings in Dafroza's home country.
Rwandan authorities had been searching for Simbikangwa, but it was a distant relative of Gauthier who recognized him. Then Gauthier's group had to gather evidence, and they gathered witness testimony in Rwanda.
The sentencing was a "huge relief," she says, "a great weight off of our shoulders, and the end of a really long struggle of a very complicated situation here."
"I decided to start doing this work in order to remember, to reconstruct Rwandans as a whole," she tells NPR's Kelly McEvers.
Her own mother was assassinated during the genocide. Even before her death, the family has lost about 40 people. "They were shot, and they were killed with machetes," she says.
Gauthier says there likely 100 people in France who are believed to be responsible for these types of crimes. Her organization has 25 cases now and is working on five more.
In 2010, French President Nikolas Sarkozy visited Rwanda and said that the international community, including France, made "mistakes that stopped it from preventing and halting this abominable crime." He said France would seek out those responsible.
"Upon his return, his government began the Office for the Investigation of Genocide to investigate solely the crimes of genocide," Gauthier says. "Since this group was created, things are moving much faster. They're moving really quickly. And there's a judge who is dedicated solely to the cases of the Rwandan genocide. ... Prior to this there was no money, there were no resources to focus on this and now there are."
The week of April 7 will be a week of mourning in Rwanda to remember the genocide.
"We'll be remembering the victims," Gauthier says, "and so I just ask that for this week you also think about the victims and their families."
KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
Their official name is the Collective for Civil Parties of Rwanda. They're known as the genocide hunters: Dafroza Gauthier and her husband, Alain. Their goal: Find and help prosecute Rwandans living in France suspected of committing crimes against humanity 20 years ago. One of their most recent targets is former Rwandan intelligence official Pascal Simbikangwa. He's accused of aiding the massacre of hundreds of thousands of Tutsis during the Rwandan genocide. He is the first Rwandan to be put on trial in France and was recently sentenced to 25 years in prison.
Madame Gauthier was at the trial. We recently spoke with her at her home in France. I asked her how she and her colleagues found Simbikangwa.
DAFROZA GAUTHIER: (Through translator) Mr. Simbikangwa was actually being searched for by the Rwandan authorities because he was very famous for his torture, for his ruthlessness. And he was recognized in Mayotte by some of the people who escaped his torture. So he was recognized there.
MCEVERS: And so those people, those - they were Rwandans, they contacted you, they contacted the Collective and said, we've seen him? Is that what happened?
GAUTHIER: (Through translator) So the niece of a distant relative recognized him and called me, said that she had seen him, that he continued to harass us. And so it was through this family, this distant family connection that I was contacted. Before we can contact the authorities, we have to gather proof. And so we had to go to Rwanda to seek out witnesses because it's through the witnesses that we are able to build our cases. So in the end, it was a huge relief, a great weight off of our shoulders and the end of a really long struggle of a very complicated situation here.
MCEVERS: I want to ask, what made you decide to do this work?
GAUTHIER: (Through translator) I decided to start doing this work in order to remember, to reconstruct Rwandans as a whole.
MCEVERS: You had left Rwanda and were living in France at the time of the genocide. How did you hear about it?
GAUTHIER: (Through translator) Yes, I was in France at the time that the genocide erupted. One month prior, I was in Kigali visiting my mother and my cousins. And I could sense that there was violence, there were tensions at the moment. My mother told me, hurry back home. You have your husband and your kids. And for us, it's over.
MCEVERS: And she was later killed, yeah?
GAUTHIER: (Through translator) Yes. My mother was assassinated on the 8th of April, from the beginning of the genocide to that morning. So a few days, we lost about 40 people in our family. They were shot, and they were killed with machetes. You know, a situation like this is something that we live, but it's really hard to talk about.
MCEVERS: How many people who were believed to be responsible for these crimes do you believe are living in France right now?
GAUTHIER: (Through translator) There are so many. You know, right now, we're working - we have 25 cases, we're working on five more, but I could easily say that there are 100 people living in France.
MCEVERS: We think about the case of Agathe Habyarimana, the former first lady of Rwanda. She was charged with complicity in genocide by Rwandese authorities. The Rwandese asked France to extradite. They refused to extradite her from France, but then they also won't grant her asylum. It just seems like there's mixed messages from French authorities.
GAUTHIER: (Through translator) It's a really good question to ask. It would be really good to - as far as, you know, being a journalist to ask this question of the French government. This is a legal case or criminal case, but the French government hasn't proceeded with it. So it would be very interesting to get an answer to this question.
MCEVERS: Why do you think the French government is reluctant to prosecute these cases?
GAUTHIER: (Through translator) I think it's because at the time in 1994, the French government was absolutely complicit in these events. They trained the soldiers. They provided the killers with weapons. And so for this reason, the fact that they are completely implicated in what happened, they're very reluctant to proceed.
MCEVERS: In 2010, the president of France at the time, Nicolas Sarkozy, visited Rwanda and admitted to grave errors of judgment by France during the genocide, and said France would seek out those responsible. Do you think the French government is living up to that promise?
GAUTHIER: (Through translator) The pawn has returned. His government began the office for the investigations of genocide. Since this group was created, things are moving much faster. They're moving really quickly. And there's a judge who is dedicated solely to the cases of the Rwandan genocide. And prior to this, there was no money, there were no resources to focus on this. And now, there are.
MCEVERS: Dafroza Gauthier and her husband, Alain, have spent 14 years hunting down those suspected of participating in the Rwandan genocide who are living in France. Madame Gauthier, thank you so much.
GAUTHIER: Thank you.
MCEVERS: And a big thank you to Kate Schlosser from UCLA for translating. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.