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Former Rwandan mayors face Paris court over 1994 genocide charges

Two former Hutu leaders have gone to trial before a special court in France for allegedly conducting 'massive and systematic' executions of Tutsis in Rwanda. Prosecutors claim the pair took part in a refugee massacre.

The defendants Tite Barahirwa and Octavien Ngenzi waived their right to remain silent, appearing before the Paris court.

Their trial is only the second case before the court established to shed light on war crimes in Rwanda, specifically on the genocide that claimed around 800,000 lives.

The photo above shows images of victims at the Kigali Genocide Memorial Center in Kigali, Rwanda.

Alain and Dafroza Gauthier who have led the campaign for the special courts

Alain and Dafroza Gauthier who have led the campaign for the special courts

The initiative came after pressure from activist groups, in particular Alain and Dafroza Gauthier who have led the campaign for the special courts. The activists claim Paris had

largely ignored

the killings in its former colony.

Barahirwa and Ngenzi face charges of

genocide and crimes against humanity

over their alleged involvement in a 1994 massacre in the east Rwanda town of Kabarondo. According to the prosecutors, the two Hutu politicians played a direct role in killing hundreds of Tutsis who sought refugee in the local church.

The mass murder took place on April 13, only days after Rwanda's Hutu president Juvenal Habyarimana died in an attack blamed on Tutsis.

On the day of the massacre, Barahirwa allegedly held a meeting at a soccer stadium, where local Hutu militiamen were ordered to "chase and kill ethnic Tutsis" throughout the town and especially at the church. Witnesses claim they saw Barahirwa, who was wielding a spear, calling for "work," considered a code word for executing Tutsis in Rwanda.

Breaching the church

Soon after, a few hundreds of armed Hutus attacked the church with machetes, spears, arrows and clubs. After the siege began, Rwandan armed forces joined in with weapons such as mortars, bombs and grenades.

"Shells were entering the church through the windows and roof, digging holes in the ground. Some people had their limbs torn apart," witness Jovithe Ryaka told investigators.

The attackers eventually managed to breach the church door and enter, killing the wounded and taking the survivors outside. Barahirwa and Ngenzi are said to have been present at the scene, separating the survivors by ethnicity, as some of the refugees were Hutu.

People identified as Tutsi were executed, and Barahirwa is charged with killing some of them himself.

Trial on camera

Both defendants had served as mayors of Kabarondo, with now 58-year old Ngenzi succeeding the 64-year old Barahirwa in 1986. The two leaders have denied carrying out "massive and systematic summary executions" and implementing a "concerted plan aimed at the annihilation" of the Tutsi minority.

The trial is expected to last for eight weeks, with more than 100 victims, relatives and witnesses appearing at the stand. The proceedings will also be recorded for historical purposes.

If convicted, Barahirwa and Ngenzi face life in prison.

dj/jm (AP, AFP)

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