France won't extradite Rwandan ex-first lady

September 28, 2011 - 11:55 AM

PARIS (AP) — France must not extradite the widow of Rwanda's former president, who has been sought by Rwandan prosecutors in connection with the African country's 1994 genocide, an appeals court ruled Wednesday.

Agathe Habyarimana, the widow of Juvenal Habyarimana, has been sought by the Rwandan state prosecutor since 2009 on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity.

The Paris court's reasoning for the decision was not immediately available, but it is binding on French Prime Minister Francois Fillon. Rwanda could still make a second request, but an extradition now appears unlikely.

Rwanda's genocide erupted after an airplane carrying President Habyarimana was shot down as near the capital, Kigali. French investigators have been looking into the case because the plane's crew was French.

Some 500,000 people, mostly ethnic Tutsis but also moderate Hutus, were massacred by radical Hutus in under 100 days. The massacres ended when Tutsi-led rebels under current President Paul Kagame defeated the Hutu extremists in July 1994.

The head of the Rwandan government's National Commission for the Fight against Genocide — in which Kagame is a member — last year claimed Agathe Habyarimana was the "main architect" of the genocide.

Following the request by Rwandan authorities two years ago, French police detained Habyarimana last year, but she was released on condition that she stay in France and check in regularly with police.

At the courthouse, Habyarimana said she was "delighted" with the decision and alleged that Rwandan authorities today were after her "because they know they killed my husband." Asked whether President Kagame himself was to blame, she didn't answer and simply looked at her lawyer.

"What I really would like is for the truth to come out on this assassination. Those who downed the airplane of the President Habyarimana and his counterparts from Burundi must be identified," she said. Cyprien Ntaryamira, president of neighboring Burundi, was among those killed.

Agathe Habyarimana — a Hutu like her husband — was helped out of Rwanda by French forces on April 9, 1994, and lived in what was then known as Zaire, now called Congo, before moving to France.

In 2004, France rejected her request for political asylum, alleging she was at the heart of the regime responsible for the genocide. Two years ago, a French court denied her appeal, arguing she had de facto authority in state affairs and rejecting as not credible her claims that she had no power.

In Kigali, Rwanda's prosecutor general, Martin Ngoga, said the decision did not surprise the government because Rwanda has never succeeded in any attempt to extradite suspects from France, despite many attempts.

"The decision not to extradite Mrs. Agathe Habyarimana is disappointing, but we will not relent in our efforts to bring genocide suspects to justice," he said.

"We expect French counterparts to explore other available options, including having Mrs. Habyarimana tried for genocide in France — an option that Rwanda does not object to."

"We also wait to see if the human rights groups that opposed her extradition will call upon France to bring her to trial or whether they will choose to support impunity," said Ngoga.

French investigators are conducting a probe of seven Kagame allies for their suspected roles in the downing of the plane — which has been a thorn in bilateral ties between France and Rwanda.

A Rwandan government investigation released in January suggested the plane was shot down by Habyarimana's own allies, as an excuse for starting the genocide.

Five years ago, the delivery of arrest warrants for people close to Kagame by a now-retired French anti-terrorism magistrate led to a break in diplomatic ties between France and Rwanda — re-established only in 2009.

Kagame conducted a state visit to France earlier this month, aimed in part at reviving bilateral ties. French President Nicolas Sarkozy visited Kigali last year — the first visit to Rwanda by a French leader in 25 years.

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Associated Press writer Edmund Kagire in Kigali, Rwanda contributed to this report.