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March 02, 2010

Rwanda Seeks Extradition of Former First Lady

by Alan Boswell

Rwanda is seeking the extradition of a former first lady who was arrested by French authorities Tuesday on genocide-related charges. France is reaching out to Rwanda after years of cold relations, which have stemmed from allegations that France was closely linked with the genocide perpetrators.

France has detained Agathe Habyarimana, the widow of the former Rwandan leader whose death in 1994 set off the ethnic slaughter which killed 800,000 in just 100 days.

Her accusers paint Habyarimana as a powerful behind-the-scenes figure and a central leader within the circle of Hutu radicals responsible for planning the massacre. A recent report commissioned by the current Rwandan government suggests that she may have been involved in the plot to kill her husband, who at the time of his death had just signed a controversial power-sharing deal with a Tutsi rebel force.

She and her family have always denied involvement in the mass killings.

Rwandan Foreign Affairs minister Louise Mushikiwabo praised the arrest by French authorities, who were acting on an international warrant issued by Rwanda.

"We welcome the move," said Louise Mushikiwabo. "We think that justice delayed is justice denied, and a number of people in Rwanda have been waiting to hear what happens with Habyarimana's widow. The people who know her in Rwanda from back then testify that she was quite involved in the preparation of the genocide."

The Rwandan official says that her country will push for the suspect to be sent back to Rwanda for trial, but also suggested that whether Habyarimana faces charges is more important than where the trial would take place.

"Ideally she should be extradited to Rwanda to face justice where the crime was committed, there is no question about it," said Mushikiwabo."That is what we are demanding. But for her, as for many other people that are implicated in this genocide, we want first and foremost justice. The important thing is that there is justice somewhere, especially because this is a crime that is not just against Rwandans but against humanity."

The French, who were close allies with Juvenal Habyarimana's regime, reportedly flew the late leader's widow out of the country as events spiraled out of control following her husband's assassination.

She has sought political asylum in France, where she has resided for a number of years, but her request has never been granted.

The sudden move to act on the arrest warrant is seen as part of a broader diplomatic gesture from France that it is serious about improving its battered ties with the tiny central African nation. Rwandan President Paul Kagame once led the Tutsi rebel force that eventually ended the genocide, and his allies have accused France of arming the Hutu militias who carried out the Tutsi extermination campaign.

France has always rebuffed claims that it was directly linked to the mass killings. But in a short trip to Kigali last week, which included a visit to a genocide memorial, French President Nicolas Sarkozy made the strongest statement of French regret yet, admitting "mistakes" were made, as well as "errors of judgment" and "errors of politics."

President Kagame cut off diplomatic relations with the European nation in 2006 after a French judge accused him and nine of his aides of shooting down President Habyarimana's plane. Official ties were restored in November.

The French in January also arrested a Hutu physician who is suspected to have led the murder of Tutsi in his village.