Rwanda's former intelligence chief faced genocide and war crimes charges Tuesday as his trial began for a 1994 killing spree that left at least a half-million people in his nation dead.
Pascal Simbikangwa, 54, could face a life sentence if convicted after the seven-week trial, the first in France over Rwanda's genocide — two decades after the bloodshed.
The case has highlighted criticism of France's own reaction to the slaughter of at least 500,000 people in Rwanda in just over 100 days.
The defendant, infirm from an auto accident years ago, was wheeled into a glassed-in area in the courtroom. He identified himself as "Pascal Safari," a combination of his real name and his alias, Senyamuhara Safari, according to court documents.
More than 50 witnesses — including journalists, historians, farmers, security guards and intelligence officials — are expected to testify, nearly all for the prosecution.
Several French human rights groups and the Collective of Civil Parties for Rwanda, which has worked to bring such a case to French courts, are among several civil parties.
"I am especially dedicating this (trial) to the anonymous victims of Pascal Simbikangwa, those without a name, a grave. This is for them today," said Dafroza Gauthier, who says she lost at least 80 family members in the genocide. She and her husband Alain set up the collective in 2001.
Simbikangwa's defense team has expressed concern that the trial will be lopsided — in part because of the difficulty in finding witnesses who will speak out in his defense.
"We'll do what we have done from the start — plead for a not-guilty verdict," said defense lawyer Fabrice Epstein, claiming the facts haven't been fully established.
On Tuesday, presiding judge Olivier Leurent went over the history of the genocide and claims against Simbikangwa, noting that the defendant had rejected them.
France had close ties to the government of Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana, an ethnic Hutu who was killed when his plane was shot down in 1994. His death set off a torrent of reprisal slayings of ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus, in what has been called the 20th century's fastest genocide.
Civil parties to the case say Simbikangwa, who came from the same town as Habyarimana and was allegedly a relative, was in the president's inner circle. From at least one roadway checkpoint in Kigali, he is alleged to have incited the army to identify and slaughter Tutsis.
Though not accused of personally killing anyone, he faces charges of complicity in war crimes and complicity in genocide.
France, critics say, was slow to react to the slaughter. Before the killings, French troops had armed and trained the Rwandan army and during the genocide, they allegedly helped radical Hutus flee the country. Later, France took in a number of exiles who have lived for years free from prosecution.
France was condemned by the European Court of Human Rights in 2004 for acting too slowly to prosecute one Rwanda genocide case.
A French trait for "ill-founded self-certainties" that engulfed "the administration, the army and the diplomatic corps" was to blame, according to French former Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, who made repeated trips to Rwanda during the genocide as a humanitarian aid activist.
"Today's trial in Paris ... will be an important moment in the global fight against impunity," said Leslie Haskell, the international justice counsel for Human Rights Watch.
"France now has the tools it needs to ensure (that) perpetrators of the world's most serious crimes don't escape justice or find a safe haven in the country," she said in a statement, noting the creation of the war crimes unit two years ago.
The Justice Ministry says another 27 cases linked to Rwanda's genocide are being investigated, including one focusing on Habyarimana's widow.
The UN tribunal on the Rwanda genocide and several Western countries — including Belgium, a former colonial overseer of the African country — have brought scores of Rwandans to justice. The UN International Criminal Tribunal in Arusha, Tanzania, will close later this year, and is now only hearing appeals, officials say.