French army officers set to avoid charges over Rwanda massacre claims

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Investigating magistrates in France have been probing the actions of a group of senior French military officers in relation to a massacre at Bisesero in Rwanda, one of the grim episodes in the genocide committed against the Tutsi people in 1994. For 13 years the judges have investigated the potential responsibility of the French military over that massacre amid claims that senior officers were slow to react to warnings that Tutsis were in mortal danger at that site. But Mediapart understands that the magistrates have now finished their probe with no individuals being placed under formal investigation, paving the way for the case to be dismissed with no trial. Fabrice Arfi reports.

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After 13 years of investigation, a judicial probe into the possible criminal responsibility of the French military in the massacre at Bisesero – one of the most embarrassing episodes for France during its military presence in Rwanda at the time of the 1994 Hutu genocide against the Tutsi people – has come to an end in Paris.

On July 27th the three judges carrying out the investigation indicated that they have ended their case. Meanwhile none of the French officers whose conduct has been examined has been placed under formal investigation, which is one step short of charges being brought. This means that unless there is a sudden dramatic development the case is set to be dismissed later this year with no trial.

The official memorial of the massacre at Bisesero in Rwanda. © Thomas Cantaloube/Mediapart The official memorial of the massacre at Bisesero in Rwanda. © Thomas Cantaloube/Mediapart
The facts of the case go back nearly a quarter of a century. They turn on four days from June 27th to June 30th, 1994. These were four grim days of darkness and bloody violence during which more than a thousand Tutsis were methodically murdered by Hutu militia and government troops on the hills of Bisesero in the west of Rwanda.

For more than twenty years two different versions of events at Bisesero have emerged, first in the media and then in judges' chambers after a formal investigation was started at the demand of several civil bodies including Rwandan survivor groups, non-governmental organisations and various associations. These include the International League against Racism and Anti-Semitism (LICRA), the International Federation for Human Rights, the Human Rights League, the anti-corruption body Survie and the Rwandan survivors group IBUKA.

On the one hand there is the claim supported by at least three soldiers from France's United Nations-mandated Opération Turquoise – whose purpose was to establish a safe zone in the country – that the military general staff allowed the massacre to be carried out despite knowing the dangers involved. And that the French military hierarchy refused any military intervention despite alerts given as early as June 27th, 1994. On the other hand, the military top brass has stuck together, insisting that they only discovered the facts of the case on June 30th and then immediately helped the survivors of the carnage as well as carrying out their UN mandate.

After 13 years of investigation the judges placed five French military officers under the status of 'assisted witness' in relation to “complicity in genocide” and “complicity in crimes against humanity”. Under the French criminal law code the status of assisted witness means that in the judges' view there exists “some evidence making it plausible [that the person in question] could have participated, as perpetrator or accomplice, in the carrying out of offences which have been referred to the investigating judge”. But that this evidence is not sufficiently “serious” and/or “consistent” to justify the judges putting the person under formal investigation, which is one step short of charges being brought.

Only people who have been placed under formal investigation can be sent to court to stand trial. It therefore seems very likely that the case involving the Bisesero massacre will conclude in the next few weeks, once the formal legal procedures are completed, with no further action being taken and that the case will be dismissed without a trial.

The soldiers who are currently still under the status of assisted witness are:

  • General Jean-Claude Lafourcade, the commanding officer of Opération Turquoise in Rwanda,

  • Colonel Jacques Rosier, head of Commando des Opérations Spéciales (COS),which coordinates French special forces operations,

  • Commander Marin Gillier, head of a COS unit,

  • the commanding officer of the Mission d’Assistance Militaire unit in Rwanda, Captain Étienne Joubert,

  • Lieutenant colonel Jean-Rémy Duval, a member of the COS.

It was Lieutenant colonel Duval who was the first to sound the alarm about what he saw on June 27th, 1994, during a reconnaissance mission to Bisesero. In a fax written on the same day – though there remains some doubt as to the precise date it was sent - Lieutenant colonel Duval said: “In the Bisesero sector we met around a hundred Tutsi refugees on the mountain … there were apparently around two thousand hidden in the woods. According to them the hunt for Tutsis took place every day, led by elements from the [Rwandan] army, the gendarmerie, militia, surrounding the population. They are in a state of extreme nutritional, sanitary and medical deprivation … They were hoping for our immediate protection or their transfer to a protected place. There is here an urgent situation which will lead to an extermination if a humanitarian structure is not rapidly put in place or at least the means to stop these manhunts.”

When questioned by the judges, Lieutenant colonel Duval explained how, horrified, he had reported his discovery to his superior officer, Colonel Jacques Rosier, of the special forces, and asked him if he could return there as soon as possible to save lives. “His reply to me was no… it seemed urgent to me. I came back [editor's note, from Bisesero] a little shaken and moved,” the officer told the judges.

Another soldier, Thierry Prungnaud, who was a gendarme attached to Opération Turquoise and who is the co-author of a book on the French operation in Rwanda, 'Silence Turquoise', also indicated during the investigation that the military hierarchy was categorically opposed to the sending of troops to Bisesero to stop the ongoing massacre. Claiming he disobeyed the military hierarchy, Thierry Prungnaud said he went to the area and discovered the hellish scenes there. “It was full of corpses. It was horrific. It was an open air mass grave. They were everywhere, hundreds and hundreds of corpses.”

The hill at Bisesero in Rwanda today. © Thomas Cantaloube The hill at Bisesero in Rwanda today. © Thomas Cantaloube
A third soldier, Jean-Marie Carpentier, a member of the same detachment as Lieutenant colonel Duval, also insisted that the information about the mortal danger facing the Tutsis at Bisesero had “of course” been sent to the military hierarchy on June 27th.

The judges found a document in the archives of France's Defence Historical Service (SHD) at Vincennes in the eastern suburbs of Paris which lent credence to his claims. It was a chronology of Opération Turquoise. For the date June 27th, 1994, it reads: “Reco [editor's note, reconnaissance mission] Bisesero sector – Tutsis could be at risk and are counting on French protection.”

“I noticed that the writer used the conditional by saying that the Tutsis 'could be at risk' whereas Duval reported that they really were at risk because he saw the state of these people with his own eyes,” Jean-Marie Carpentier told the judges.

Other documents, which were obtained by the judges thanks to several batches of secret documents being declassified, also leave little doubt that the military hierarchy knew very early on about the situation in Bisesero. This emerges, for example, from a section in a fax sent at 2.38pm on June 27th, 1994, by the information unit at the inter-service body coordinating the French military response, the Poste de Commandement Interarmées (PCIAT) which was based at Goma in the Congo. It clearly indicates that the Tutsi refugees at Bisesero were threatened by the genocidal killings that had been shattering the whole country since the start of April 1994. In all some 800,000 were killed in Rwanda in the space of 100 days.

At 11.04pm on the same day, June 27th, General Jean-Claude Lafourcade, commander in chief of Opération Turquoise, himself sent a fax in which he said he feared that some “Tutsis who had fled the massacres” at Bisesero were looking to defend themselves there. Among the risks that the general describes was: “Doing nothing and letting massacres be carried out behind our back.” In fact the French Army only took action three days later.

The investigation also saw video evidence. An army video filmed on June 28th, 1994, and handed over to the judges shows a staff sergeant informing the COS special forces unit head Colonel Rosier about the discovery the day before of Tutsi survivors at Bisesero. The officer, however, does not react. When confronted with this video Colonel Rosier told the judges: “Looking at this scene and knowing myself, I see that I don't catch on, for in all likelihood I don't grasp what he is telling me, my mind is elsewhere, I'm in the process of preparing for my press conference, lots of things have happened since the day before … It's true that seeing this scene again it seems unbelievable to me not to have reacted to the information given.”

In addition to this documentary evidence, several journalists who were on the scene said that they, too, had tried to alert the the army to the tragedy that was unfolding on the hills of Bisesero. They included Patrick de Saint-Exupéry of newspaper Le Figaro, Vincent Hugeux of news magazine L’Express and Sam Kiley of The Times. But Commander Marin Gillier told the judges that he found it hard to take The Times journalist Sam Kiley seriously – he says he did not remember the others. For him Kiley was too much like a spy. “His behaviour was similar to that of special forces: shaved head, assembly of bivouac in the style of the special forces, the ability to prepare a hot meal in the wind, in short I was immediately convinced that he was from the SAS [editor's note, British special forces] on an undercover reconnaissance mission.”

When he gave evidence on June 29th, 2018, reporter Nicolas Poincaré said that the soldiers “could have arrived 24 hours or 48 hours (earlier) for [Opération] Turquoise had been going for a week and we journalists had tried to draw their attention to the manhunt at Bisesero. But on their side they had orders to be cautious in relation to fears of attacks or ambushes from the FPR [editor's note, the Rwandan Patriotic Front led by Paul Kagamé, who is now Rwandan president].”

Nonetheless, the journalist insisted that “when the commandos from the Marines discovered what was happening they reacted impeccably. When they saw thousands of Hutus advancing on the hills they got in the ditches and targeted the killers. In a moment they understood who were the victims and who were the killers.”

The key issue therefore at stake in the judicial investigation was thus to determine whether in law the delay of three days that separated the discovery of the Tutsi survivors at Bisesero on June 27th and the subsequent military intervention constituted aid or assistance knowingly given to those carrying out the genocide. In declining to put the military officers under formal investigation, the investigating judges seem to indicate that it did not.

That is also the stance of two of the high-ranking officers under assisted witness status, Colonel Rosier and Commander Gillier. In a joint communication they sent to the judges in March 2018 they describe the accusations of a possible passive complicity in crimes as “absurd and monstrous and in absolute contradiction to the ethics of French military personnel”. They insisted: “The French army reacted as rapidly and effectively as it could.”

One of their former military colleagues, Étienne Joubert, who is also under the status of assisted witness, goes even further. As far as he is concerned the suspicions directed at the French army are simply an “exploitation” of the situation carried out by the current administration in Rwanda.

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  • The French version of this article can be found here.

English version by Michael Streeter

 

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