PARIS : A French court is due to deliver its much-anticipated verdict on Friday in the landmark trial of a Rwandan army captain accused of complicity in genocide, just weeks ahead of the 20th anniversary of the 1994 atrocity.
Prosecutors in the trial - the first of its kind in France - have asked for life imprisonment for Pascal Simbikangwa, branding him an ethnic “cleanser” who was “radically committed” to his work and a “man capable of the worst”. The defence have requested the 54-year-old be acquitted, saying the trial is politically motivated and describing witnesses as unreliable and guided by spite, indoctrination or fear. The defendant himself, who denies all charges against him, took the stand one last time on Friday morning, calling on the court to recognise his “innocence.”
“In a few moments you will be alone with your conscience, you are called upon to decide my fate,” he told the jury.
“To all Tutsi victims, I am thinking of them. Sorry for the weaknesses of my condition that did not allow me to help you like I would have wanted to,” he said.
The jury then retired to deliberate their verdict on events that took place two decades ago in a small African country some 6,000 kilometres (3,700 miles) away.
The trial is being closely watched in France, which has long been accused of failing to rein in the Rwandan regime at the time of the genocide between April and July 1994 that left 800,000 dead.
And in a rare case for France, it is being filmed, with recordings due to be available once the case is concluded.
Simbikangwa, who is in a wheelchair after a 1986 car accident left him paraplegic, is accused of inciting, organising and aiding massacres during the genocide, particularly by supplying arms and instructions to Hutu militia who were manning road blocks and killing Tutsi men, women and children.
He was arrested in 2008 on the French Indian Ocean island of Mayotte, after which Paris refused to extradite him to Rwanda and decided to try him under laws that allow French courts to consider cases of genocide.
Over the past six weeks of trial Simbikangwa has systematically minimised his role and his understanding of the massacres that were committed in 1994.
To general amazement, he said on the third day of trial that he had never seen a single corpse during the genocide, unleashed mainly on the minority Tutsi community after Hutu president Juvenal Habyarimana was assassinated on April 6, 1994.
Pressed on the subject, he responded that his disability forced him to “lie down a bit” when he went out in cars.
Lawyers for the former army captain have sought to discredit witnesses, saying some have been coerced or that they are prisoners hoping to win shorter sentences.
They have also said that they did not have the means to properly defend Simbikangwa and had not even been able to visit Rwanda to verify prosecution evidence.
And the defendant was found to have saved a certain number of Tutsis.
But witnesses - even those he saved - have painted a picture of a man who was closely involved in the genocide, playing a lead role in checkpoints that identified Tutsis, stockpiling weapons at his home and distributing them.
Prosecutor Bruno Sturlese has asked the jury to declare him guilty of genocide, and not only of complicity. The jury is expected to issue its verdict later on Friday.