After 12 years living a quiet existence in a suburb near Paris, the widow of the assassinated Rwandan president whose death triggered the largest mass slaughter of the 20th century, was arrested yesterday. She is accused of helping mastermind the 1994 genocide.
The detention of Agathe Habyarimana, dubbed "Lady Genocide" by some, came less than a week after President Nicolas Sarkozy became the first French head of state to visit Rwanda for 25 years. During a brief stopover in the capital Kigali he issued a semi-apology for France's "serious errors" over the genocide.
The government in Rwanda which is preparing a formal extradition request has long sought the arrest of the widow – an ethnic Hutu like her husband – who was detained at her home in Courcouronnes, south of Paris shortly before 8am. She was later released but forbidden from leaving the country and ordered to report to a French judge once a month. She now faces a fight to avoid being sent back to a country she last saw on 9 April, 1994, three days after her husband's jet was shot down close to Kigali airport.
Mrs Habyarimana, who claims her influence did not extend beyond the president's domestic arrangements, escaped the orgy of killing that left 800,000 people dead in 100 days. She was helped to escape across the border into Congo by French forces.
This account is disputed by many inside Rwanda where it is alleged she ran "Clan de Madame", an elite clique including senior army officers who developed the movement that would become known as "Hutu Power". Yesterday's move by the French authorities was warmly welcomed in Kigali. "At long last the long arm of the law is finally taking its course," said Justice Minister Tharcisse Karugarama.
The head of Rwanda's genocide fugitive tracking unit said it had asked for Mrs Habyarimana's extradition. "Our priority is to have her tried in Rwanda because this is where she committed crimes against the Rwandan people," said Jean Bosco Mutangana.
The arrest comes during an apparent thaw in ties between Kigali and Paris after they traded accusations over responsibility for the mass killings.
Four years ago a French judge accused Rwanda's president Paul Kagame and nine aides of shooting down Habyarimana's plane. Leon Habyarimana, son of the accused, said the warrant for his mother was an attempt by the Rwandan government to distract from their own much-criticised human rights record.
"The Rwandan government have launched judicial proceedings as a red herring, to confuse the issue, and push the focus away from their own culpability to which they have never owned up," he said. "She has always said, and she still says, that she has nothing to reproach herself for. She was evacuated out of the country three days after my father's death, she wasn't in Rwanda at the time of all the atrocities."
Mrs Habyarimana's arrest comes less than a month after another high profile suspect was detained in France. Sostene Munyemana had been working for nine years as a gynaecologist in Villeneuve-sur-Lot before being taken into custody. He had been on an Interpol watch list since 2006 but authorities made no move until last month. "I'm not at all surprised that this is happening now," Mr Munyemana had told AFP. "Diplomatic relations have been restored between the two countries and so the circumstances were favourable to this."
Mrs Habyarimana's son echoed those concerns over France's sudden interest in arresting genocide suspects. "Why now? Why just after the visit of Sarkozy? The family has confidence in the French judicial system, we hope that the politicians let the judges do their work without interference."
Her lawyer Philippe Meilhac was unequivocal about a link to the recent political detente with Paris. "You can't not draw a link," he said. "The extradition request from Kigali dates back to November and was obviously re-activated" after Sarkozy returned. Mrs Habyarimana would fight extradition, he said. "If she must be heard, she asks that it be in a French or international court".
International observers have repeatedly expressed concerns about the independence of the Rwanda justice system, as well as the absence of protection for witnesses.
The former Rwandan president's widow has in the past enjoyed a very different relationship with the French government. She got $40,000 on arrival in Paris taken from France's Ministry of Cooperation budget designated for "urgent assistance for Rwandan refugees".
Rwanda genocide: Blood on their hands?
The death of the Rwandan President, a Hutu, when his plane was shot down in April 1994 sparked the massacres. Habyarimana had led a coup in 1973 and signed a power-sharing agreement with the Tutsis to end a civil war in 1993.
Led Tutsi rebels to defeat Hutu extremists in July 1994. A French judge blamed him and associates for the rocket attack that brought down Habyarimana's plane, which he denied. Now Rwandan President.
Colonel Theoneste Bagosora
Senior official in Rwanda's extremist Hutu regime, convicted in 2008 of masterminding slaughter. Jointly responsible for forming the machete-wielding Hutu militia, the Interahamwe.
Former prime minister and the first person sentenced for genocide. Jailed for life in 1998.
Co-founder of a radio station that broadcast incitements to murder, found guilty of war crimes in 2003.Reuse content