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Warmer ties ahead as France drops probe into Rwanda plane shooting



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The decision by French judges to definitively close the investigation into the shooting down of a plane carrying former Rwanda president Juvénal Habyarimana is likely to usher in a new era of relations between France and Rwanda.

Paris and Kigali have maintained shaky relations over the past 25 years, mainly over differing accounts of the 1994 Genocide Against the Tutsi and the investigations that started over 21 years ago.

The investigation into the shooting down of the plane carrying president Habyarimana and his Burundian counterpart Cyprien Ntaryamira on April 6, 1994 while en route from Arusha — which, according to most accounts, sparked off the genocide — targeted senior Rwanda Patriotic Front officials.

On December 21, French judges Jean-Marc Herbaut and Nathalie Poux, the last ones to handle the investigation, announced that there was “no evidence to continue pursuing the case as is” against the senior Rwandan officials and closed the case definitively as recommended by the Prosecutor’s Office on October 10.

Rwanda’s Minister for Foreign Affairs and government spokesperson Richard Sezibera said on Christmas Eve that the country agreed with the closure.

“We welcome this decision, which brings to an end to a brazen attempt over two decades to obstruct justice for the Genocide against the Tutsi, and prevent accountability for both the perpetrators and their willful accomplices,” Dr Sezibera said in a statement.

State Minister for Foreign Affairs Olivier Nduhungirehe said that it took 20 years of manipulation of an investigation, only for it to end up without evidence.

The case had been a point of contention between Rwanda and France. Relations between Kigali and Paris took a downward spiral in 2006 after French judge Jean-Louis Bruguière, who was the first to handle the probe, issued indictments against nine officials, all senior commanders under President Paul Kagame in the RPF hierarchy.

In 2006, following the indictments by Judge Bruguière, Rwanda expelled French ambassador Dominique Decherf and cut ties with Paris.

The situation worsened in 2008, after Lt-Col (Rtd) Rose Kabuye, Rwanda’s then director of state protocol, was arrested in Germany on warrants issued by France.

The arrest of Lt-Col Kabuye, and her subsequent transfer to Paris, pushed relations between Rwanda and France further downhill, leading to Kigali’s expulsion of the German ambassador.

However, from 2010, under the then French president Nicolas Sarkozy, relations between the two countries started to thaw and the two presidents vowed to usher in a “forward looking era.” After president Sarkozy’s visit to Kigali in February 2010, diplomatic missions in both capitals were restored.

Meanwhile, judges Marc Trévidic and Poux took over the investigation from Judge Bruguière, who was retiring.

In January 2012, the two judges issued a report that seemed to exonerate the senior RPF officials after it identified Kanombe Military Barracks as the launch site of the missile that brought down Habyarimana’s plane as it prepared to land at Kigali International Airport on the way from Arusha.

The development was key since Kanombe Military Barracks was under government forces. It was previously believed that the missiles were launched from Masaka, which at the time was under the RPF’s control.

The French judges however did not close the probe definitively even after Judge Trévidic handed the case over to judges Marc Herbaut and Poux. In 2017, there were reports that the probe would be reopened to hear new witnesses, a move that Rwanda rejected.

According to the AFP, lawyers for Habyarimana’s widow, Agathe Kanziga Habyarimana, said they would appeal the decision.

“We have to interpret this decision by French judges as a form of resignation faced with a political context that prosecutors did not know how to fight,” said lawyer Philippe Meilhac. “Rwandan authorities have never sought help to bring the truth to light.”

Kigali hopes that the probe will be closed for good under President Emmanuel Macron’s government, which is seemingly keen on restoring ties between the two former allies.

President Macron has invited President Kagame to Paris several times and backed Rwanda’s former foreign affairs minister Louise Mushikiwabo win the position of Secretary General of Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie.

But for some, like genocide scholar Tom Ndahiro, the closure of the probe should lead to a discussion on the involvement of the French in the genocide.

Kigali maintains that senior French officials in government and the military played a role in the 1994 killings. In November 2016, Rwanda said it would investigate 20 French officials, mainly members of the military, over their role in the genocide.

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