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Rwanda trial marks end of sister's long struggle

2 min 21Approximate reading time

A quarter of a century since extremist leaders unleashed death squads in the hills of Rwanda, Martine Beckers' quest for genocide justice may be nearing an end.

The 70-year-old Belgian former EU civil servant lost three close relatives in the massacre, and she has been battling ever since to bring the alleged perpetrators to justice.

On Thursday, 71-year-old former Rwandan official Fabien Neretse will face a court in Brussels accused of sending out ethnic Hutu militants to help kill the Tutsi residents of his Kigali district in April 1994.

Among the victims were Beckers' sister, brother-in-law and 20-year-old niece, shot dead by a gang allegedly linked to Neretse, a member of the Hutu ethnic group and a senior government figure in the neighbourhood.

Their killings took place three days after the assassination of Rwanda's Hutu president, Juvenal Habyarimana, the start of a genocidal campaign that would leave 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus dead.

Neretse protests his innocence but if convicted faces life imprisonment in the first case tried in Belgium under a criminal charge of "genocide" and the fifth relating to the 1994 killings in its former colony.

Under a 1993 law, Belgian courts enjoy universal jurisdiction to prosecute genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity wherever they took place.

- Seeking justice -

Beckers made a formal complaint to the Belgian federal police in mid-1994, and in the years since -- working with Rwandan witnesses and human rights groups -- she believes she has traced one of the instigators.

Magistrates have been compiling evidence in the case for 15 years and the fact that it is now coming to trial "owes a lot to her determination" her lawyer Eric Gillet says.

Talking to AFP at her home in Ottignies-Louvain-la-Neuve, south of Brussels, Beckers describes her struggle as a "joint combat" on behalf of all of the massacre victims.

"I was in an excellent position, being Belgian, with my family and my life here. It's very different for the refugees," she said.

"There needs to be justice," she said. "Those who planned, organised and executed this genocide must be punished. If not here, then where?"

- 'Unbearable' murder -

On the day before the hearing, she flicked though photo albums showing images of the ice cream parlour her sister Claire ran in Kigali and of Claire's daughter Katia in a karate uniform, shortly before her murder.

And she relives the fraught first days after the killings began, when terrifying but partial, vague and sometimes contradictory rumours arrived from Rwanda.

The young cousins Emmanuel and Regine were at first counted among the victims of the April 9 murders, and their names were included when Belgium-based family members held a memorial mass on May 1 in Brussels.

But the children had been rescued and sheltered by Muslim neighbours and were later found alive in Rwanda.

Claire's fate, tragically, became clear much earlier. Martine received a telephone call on April 10 from a friend of a friend in Kigali explaining what had happened the day before.

"At first, I didn't want to believe it, it seemed impossible, unimaginable, unbearable. But in the end, I had to admit the reality," she said.

During the killings, gunmen allegedly loyal to Neretse prevented Tutsi families from fleeing the site of the murders.

He is charged with responsibility for 11 murders in Kigali, and two more in the north of the country in Gitarama and Ruhengeri, where the defendant, an agricultural engineer by training, ran a school that allegedly helped finance a militia.

He was arrested in France in 2011, and his Belgian trial is expected to last six weeks.

His lawyers have warned that they will mount a stout defence and that, in particular, it will be very hard after so many years to prove the specific crime of genocide.

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