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Ibuka sues French bank over Rwanda genocide

France’s largest bank, BNP Paribas, faces accusations from three NGOs which on Sept.21 announced filing legal action against it for alleged “complicity in genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity” during the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda.

The probe, which does not imply any guilt, will be led by three investigating magistrates after a complaint against BNP was filed this summer by three French civil society organisations, according to a spokesman for the prosecutor.

According to reports from Paris, the suit details indicate that Banque Nationale de Paris (BNP), as the bank was known before it merged  in 2000 with Paribas to become BNP Paribas, “participated in financing the purchase of 80 tonnes of arms that served to perpetrate the genocide” despite the fact, it claims, “that the bank could not have doubted the genocidal intentions of the authorities of the country for which it authorized the transfer” of funds. The groups note that a United Nations arms embargo was in effect at the time.

The genocide against the Tutsi claimed 800,000 lives, between April and July 1994.

The three NGOs leading the charge are Sherpa, an anti-corruption group that defends victims of economic crimes, Ibuka France, an association that defends survivors of the genocide, and the Collective of Civil Parties for Rwanda (CPCR), a group based in France that pursues claims against genocide suspects. Sherpa earned headlines recently when it filed a lawsuit against the Swiss-French cement giant LafargeHolcim alleging the company financed Islamic State group in Syria.

In their complaint against BNP, the NGOs claim the bank “authorised two transfers of funds [totalling more than $1.3 million] on June 14 and 16, 1994, from the account that the National Bank of Rwanda held with BNP towards an account at the Swiss bank UBP” held under the name of Willem Tertius Ehlers. The group’s complaint says Ehlers, a South African national and former secretary to South African leader P.W. Botha, owned an arms brokerage firm called Delta Aero at the time.

The suit claims Ehlers and Rwandan Hutu colonel Théoneste Bagosora concluded an arms sale in the Seychelles on the day after the second transfer of funds. It says the weapons were officially purchased by Zaire, as the Democratic Republic of Congo was then known, but with two Rwandans in the delegation that travelled to the Seychelles. The groups cite testimony given by Bagosora himself before the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda describing the transfer of weapons from the Seychelles to Goma, on Zaire’s border with Rwanda, and then into Rwanda.

Bagosora, now 70, is serving a 35-year sentence for crimes against humanity in connection with the genocide.

For its part, BNP said in an emailed statement to the Financial Times newspaper: “This is a mechanical and compulsory step in a complaint of this type. It is not in any way a new development. This relates to a topic which dates back to 1994.

“BNP Paribas has not received the complaint which was announced in the media. And so we have no knowledge of the substance of the complaint. Given these conditions, it is not possible for us to comment in further detail.”

“This in no way constitutes a new development,” a BNP spokeswoman said.

BNP Paribas has yet to respond to the substance of the allegations. “We have learned through the media about a lawsuit being filed,” a BNP Paribas spokesperson told news agencies on Sept.21. “At this time, we do not have sufficient information about it to enable us to comment on it.”

Meanwhile, according the same report in the French press, a separate complaint was filed on Sept.20 against “X”, or persons unknown in the French legal parlance, for “complicity in genocide and complicity in crimes against humanity” during the Rwandan genocide by Survie, a French group that “denounces all forms of French neo-colonial intervention in Africa”.

Survie wants an inquiry to be opened. “There are strong suspicions about the involvement of French politicians and military personnel in the cooperation with the Rwandan government before, during and after the genocide,” said Safya Akorri, Survie’s lawyer, according to Le Parisien, which alongside Radio France broke the news about the complaint.” It is up to the judiciary, and not civil society, to help in understanding their role and establishing possible penal responsibility.”

Survie had filed a prior complaint that was dismissed last fall.

In the latest issue of the French quarterly XXI, editor-in-chief Patrick de Saint-Exupéry looks at similar allegations as relayed by an unnamed civil servant who had access to still-classified French archives from the time. Saint-Exupéry’s piece accuses the Elysée Palace of ordering the re-armament of Hutu authorities in the wake of the genocide. His source claims a memo to that effect was signed by Hubert Védrine, the palace’s secretary general at the time under late Socialist president François Mitterrand.

“For more than 20 years, associations, historians, the French judiciary have been asking for access to these archives. For 20 years, these archives have rested, ferociously protected,” Saint-Exupéry told FRANCE 24’s French language Journal de l’Afrique. “So it obviously begs the question today of the opening of these archives and I believe that today is the issue.

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