The French couple bringing Rwandan war criminals to justice

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WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The discovery of mass graves or other evidence of war crimes poses several challenges, chief among them, bringing the alleged war criminals to court.

According to former United States Justice Department official Allan Ryan, the recent introduction of what’s known as universal jurisdiction has made it easier to prosecute these suspected war criminals.

ALLAN RYAN, Former Attorney, U.S. Justice Department: Universal jurisdiction is not a universal concept yet. It allows trials to be held where otherwise they might not be.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: In France, universal jurisdiction has made it possible for a husband and wife to pursue alleged war criminals behind the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

Special correspondent Jonathan Silvers has that story.

JONATHAN SILVERS: For the past 15 years, Dafroza Gauthier has risen at first light to probe the Rwandan genocide and track down fugitive perpetrators, notably the slaughter’s architects and executioners.

Gauthier was born and raised in Rwanda and, until recently, worked in the chemical industry. But she has become a formidable war crimes investigator, by necessity.

DAFROZA GATHER, Rwandan Genocide Investigator (through translator): We began by collecting information and testimony from our close friends and families. But the more we heard their stories, the more we knew that something had to be done.

JONATHAN SILVERS: Dafroza Gauthier has only one memento of her family, this photo of her mother, who was murdered along with scores of relatives in the spring of 1994. Gauthier was living in Belgium when the genocide began, and she learned about her family members’ demise in real time, via a series of phone calls to her native village in Rwanda.

The violence was rooted in longstanding ethnic division between the governing Hutu majority and the Tutsi minority. In the space of 100 days, roughly 800,000 men, women, and children were killed, mostly ethnic Tutsi and moderate Hutus.

DAFROZA GAUTHIER (through translator): One day, people should ask the question why the world abandoned the Tutsis in Rwanda. There are nation, states, politicians who should ask forgiveness of the Rwandan people.

JONATHAN SILVERS: To date, Gauthier and her associates have tracked down roughly 30 fugitive perpetrators of the genocide in France and its territories. The dossiers on these perpetrators, known here in France as genocidaires, grow larger by the week.

DAFROZA GAUTHIER (through translator): One case can take two, three or four years by the time we collect the evidence. But what has to be denounced today is why is the public prosecutor is not investigating. Why is the public prosecutor waiting for civil plaintiffs like us to find the evidence? The public prosecutor should do its job of justice. It shouldn’t be our job.

JONATHAN SILVERS: The investigative work is a partnership, consecrated by 37 years of marriage.

Alain Gauthier met Dafroza in Rwanda, where Alain taught French in a foreign aid program. A native Frenchman and retired high school principal, he’s learned to navigate the bureaucracy that is the French legal system. Together, he and wife established an organization, the Civil Parties Collective for Rwanda, to secure legal status as plaintiffs in civil suits.

ALAIN GAUTHIER, Rwandan Genocide Investigator (through translator): We were forced to investigate ourselves, because the public prosecutor never pressed charges. All the cases concerning the murder of Tutsis in Rwanda came solely through the will of the plaintiffs.

JONATHAN SILVERS: After years of legal wrangling, a senior figure in the Rwandan genocide faced French justice for the first time in February 2014.

The Gauthiers have filed a civil action that led the justice ministry to prosecute the defendant, Pascal Simbikangwa. Simbikangwa held a senior position in the Rwandan state security service in the 1990s. Despite being paralyzed from the waste down during the genocide, he helped arm the Hutu militia and organized roadblocks where thousands of fleeing Tutsi were murdered.

The Gauthiers found him living under an assumed name in the French territory of Mayotte in the Indian Ocean. He’d fled there after the genocide and survived by forging identity documents. French authorities arrested him in 2008.

ALAIN GAUTHIER (through translator): In some cases, we had to travel three, four or five times to Rwanda to take as much testimony as possible. Then, all that testimony had to be translated. The testimony has to be organized and given to our lawyers to draft a complaint.

Every case requires a large amount of work. That’s hard for plaintiffs like us, who are not trained for this type of work.

JONATHAN SILVERS: The Gauthiers’ pursuit of fugitive perpetrators has forced France to examine its conduct both during and after the genocide. France had close relations with the Hutu-led regime that carried out the slaughter. In the aftermath, Rwanda’s post-genocide government has accused France of complicity, obstructing the escape of Hutu killers, and harboring fugitives.

Most recently, the European Human Rights Court condemned France for excessive delays in investigating suspected genocidaires. Preliminary investigations against one suspect took nine years to reach court.

These chronic delays outraged Rwandan survivors in France, like Marcel Kabanda, a historian specializing in genocide studies.

MARCEL KABANDA, Genocide Historian (through translator): For 20 years, we asked ourselves if France wasn’t becoming a paradise for Rwandan war criminals. France must not be the country that gives impunity to the killers behind the genocide.

JONATHAN SILVERS: The effort to bring Rwanda genocidaires to justice was bolstered in 2010 by a modification to the French penal code permitting the prosecution of major crimes committed outside France.

This type of prosecution is better known as universal jurisdiction, according to Allan Ryan, the U.S. government’s former chief war crimes prosecutor.

ALLAN RYAN: Universal jurisdiction is a concept and in some countries a law that says, this country will have jurisdiction over genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, no matter where in the world they might have taken place, no matter where in the world or in the world they might have involved.

It’s a departure from what international jurisdiction has been from the beginning of the international system 350 years ago that says there has to be some connection between the country and the trial, the victims have to be your citizens, or the venue of the trial has to be where the crime took place, or in some way there has to be a tie between the country and the crime.

JONATHAN SILVERS: Pascal Simbikangwa was the first Rwandan prosecuted for genocide in France under the new universal jurisdiction law.

The landmark trial attracted legions of survivors and their supporters. Throughout the trial and appellate process, the defendant maintained his innocence.

As the defendant’s public advocate, Fabrice Epstein crafted a defense based on reasonable doubt, emphasizing the 20-year interval between the alleged crime and the French trial.

FABRICE EPSTEIN, Public Advocate: This is, for me, an act of courage to say that I believe this person. I believe that, when there’s a genocide, there could be innocent people. This one is, so I will defend him.

JONATHAN SILVERS: The case has particular significance for Epstein. He’s Jewish and the grandson of a Holocaust survivor.

FABRICE EPSTEIN: I spoke with the client about my origins, about my family, of course. And he knows that it’s really important for me that he doesn’t lie, because, when we’re talking about genocide, it’s something really deep. It reminds me what my people went through.

JONATHAN SILVERS: The first trial ended in 2014 with Simbikangwa’s conviction for genocide and complicity in crimes against humanity.

The appellate court upheld the conviction. Simbikangwa will now serve a 25-year prison sentence. Following the Simbikangwa trial, two more Rwandan fugitives located by the Gauthiers have been prosecuted in France. Both were convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment.

These legal victories have energized the Gauthiers. They now devote all of their time to tracking down fugitive genocidaires and filing new cases with the court system. A small amount of funding provided by the state and their supporters has proven inadequate, and they have depleted their own savings to continue this work.

DAFROZA GAUTHIER (through translator): Is justice possible? Yes. But, like mankind, it’s not perfect. We accept it so we can continue our work for everyone, for future generations, for victims, and even for the executioners.

JONATHAN SILVERS: Reporting from France, this is Jonathan Silvers for the “PBS NewsHour.”

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Jonathan Silvers is the producer and director of “Dead Reckoning,” a PBS documentary series on postwar justice that’s premiering on March 28.

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