French authorities on Tuesday arrested former Rwandan President's widow, Agathe Habyarimana, at her home outside Paris.
Ms. Habyarimana the most senior Hutu figure associated with the Rwanda genocide living abroad and the widow of former Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana, who was killed when his plane was shot down in 1994, triggering four months of mass killings.
The arrest comes days after French President Nicolas Sarkozy stood in Rwanda with President Paul Kagame and vowed “to turn an extremely painful page” in relations between the two counties. He admitted that France had made mistakes and “miscalculations” in its behavior regarding the dark days of the 1994 period.
A few dozen Hutu officials were given refuge in France after the 1994 genocide and Rwandan officials over the years have accused the French of obstructing efforts to bring them to justice. But this year France has changed course. In January the country arrested a prominent Hutu doctor accused of genocide, sparking speculation that big fish like Ms. Habyarimana would soon follow.
Her arrest is based on an international warrant issued in Rwanda, where Mr. Kagam's Tutsi-dominated government want to try Habyarimana, accused of helping to plan the 1994 genocide of ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus by a “Hutu extremist” movement that was driven out by Kagame’s forces.
Rwanda’s justice minister, Tharcisse Karugarama, hailed the detention as a positive development. "At long last the long arm of the law is finally taking its course," he told Reuters.
Rakiya Omar of African Rights, a group that focuses on human rights and conflict issues on the continent, said by phone from Kigali Tuesday that the arrest of a senior Hutu is a signal to the French judiciary that it can take a harder and freer look at genocide cases that have long been ignored.
“What is new about this arrest is the apparent willingness of France at the political level to give credence to Rwandans that want to address the genocide in a new way,” he said.
France and Rwanda broke diplomatic ties following the 2006 release in France of a report by Judge Jean-Louis Bruguiere, who argued that Kagame was responsible for the 1994 downing of the Falcon 50 light aircraft carrying President Habyarimana. The president was on his way to peace talks with fellow Hutu and then-President of Burundi Cyprien Ntaryamira, who also perished. Two key Bruguiere witnesses have since recanted their testimony.
The arrest of Habyarimana also comes weeks after the release of an exhaustive inquiry into the causes of the genocide, known as the Mutsinzi Report. The report relies on a wide array of evidence from the United Nations, Belgium, and eyewitnesses to conclude the missiles that downed the president’s plane were fired from a military base controlled by the Hutu-led presidential guard. Hutu groups abroad say the Mutsinzi Report is propaganda.
Habyarimana left Rwanda less than a week after her husband’s plane was shot down. Authorities in Kigali paint her as an extremely powerful figure behind the scenes. Analysts say that direct evidence of her complicity could be difficult to find compared with the role played by generals or local political figures.
In Rwanda last week Mr. Sarkozy said those found responsible for genocide should be tried. He asked, “Are there any in France? The justice system must decide.”