France puts ex-top Rwanda official on trial for genocide

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A former senior Rwandan official went on trial in Paris on Monday accused of complicity in the African nation's genocide, the most high-ranking figure yet to face justice in France over the 1994 massacres.

The case of Laurent Bucyibaruta is the fourth from the Rwandan genocide to come to court in France, which had long been under pressure from activists to act against suspected perpetrators who had taken refuge on French soil.

An estimated 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus perished in 100 days of slaughter in 1994 in which Hutu militiamen massacred Tutsis taking cover in churches and schools.

Standing trial on charges of genocide, complicity in genocide and complicity in crimes against humanity, Bucyibaruta faces a life sentence if convicted. He is the highest-ranking Rwandan official to be tried in France.

At the heart of the case are several "security" meetings, either ordered by Bucyibaruta or in which he participated. The accusation says they were slaughter-planning sessions.

The 78-year-old, who suffers from health problems, entered the courtroom in a wheelchair, a walking stick in his hand.

Bucyibaruta, in a hoarse voice, asked if he could remain seated, as offered by the court's president.

The defendant suffers from "severe heart disease and diabetes", said one of his lawyers, Jean-Marie Biju-Duval.

"He can appear in court, he can express himself, but is he in a condition to defend himself?" asked Biju-Duval.

- Tens of thousands killed -

In particular the former prefect of the southern province of Gikongoro is accused of persuading thousands of people to take refuge in the Murambi Technical School, by promising them food, water and protection.

But days later, in the early hours of April 21, tens of thousands of Tutsis were executed in one of the genocide's grimmest episodes.

The court will also discuss Bucyibaruta's responsibility in the massacre of around 90 Tutsi pupils at the Marie Merci school in Kibeho on May 7, 1994 and in the execution of Tutsi prisoners -- including three priests -- in Gikongoro prison.

Bucyibaruta denies the charges and refutes any involvement in the killings.

Defence lawyers asked for the case to be thrown out, due to "unreasonable" delays as the proceedings began 22 years ago.

The court rejected this request.

The trial is expected to last two months and feature over 100 witnesses including survivors from Rwanda, who have flown over or will appear via videoconference.

Bucyibaruta, who has been in France since 1997 and is under judicial supervision, has myriad health problems which should limit the hearings to seven hours a day.

Four people in three cases have already been convicted in French courts over the genocide: a former hotel driver handed a 14-year sentence, an army officer jailed for 25 years and two mayors given life sentences.