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By Ibrahim Seaga Shaw, Paris, France - 16/06/2002

The struggle for press freedom in Africa received a major boost in Paris on June 3 when the 17th chamber of the French high court threw out on technical grounds the libel suit filed by Rwandan President Paul Kagame against investigative Cameroonian journalist and author Charles Onana.


The journalist was charged with defamation for publishing a book titled: "Les Sécrèts du Génocide Rwandais-Enqête sur les Mystères d'un Président" (The Secrets of the Rwandan Genocide-investigations into the mysteries of a president), which alleges that Kagame was the key instigator in the downing of President Juvenal Habyarimana's plane on 6 April 1994 which, according to him, sparked off the Rwandan genocide.

But when the matter came up for hearing for the third time, presiding Judge Edith Dubreuil dismissed the case on the grounds that the plaintiff had failed to meet the three-month deadline in filing the case as required by article 65 of the French law of 29 July 1881 on press freedom and publications, as it was only filed on 6 March, more than three months after the publication of the book in November 2001.

Dubreuil, who was assisted on the case by two other judges, Sylvie Menotti and Sophie Poitou, refered to evidence provided by the defence which confirmed that the book was published in November, with 40 copies sold at the FNAC Forum in Paris between 30 November and 6 December, at least over a week before the cut-off date.

The court was told that copies of the book were sent to subscribers such as Ernest Munyankindi on 29 November, to Emmanuel Kaouhijev, Tiphaine Dickson and Séraphine Babona on 30 November, and to Francine Uwera on 3 December. The court also heard that although the press conference announcing the publication of the book by MINSI Publications took place on 10 December, the author, Onana, had already granted an interview on the book to Radio France International (RFI) on 25 November 2001.

When the case opened on 8 April, the prosecution had claimed that investigations into the shooting of the presidential plane was underway before French Judge, Jean Louis Bruguière, and had accused Onana of not respecting the principle of "presumption of innocence" for Kagame in the matter. But the judge refused to grant the request of the prosecution to order the book withdrawn from the market on the grounds that Kagame was not an accused person before Judge Bruguière.

"So far over 5,000 copies of the book have sold out since Kagame filed the libel suit and the demand is expected to shoot up" , Onana told EXPO TIMES beaming with a big smile shortly after the court verdict was delivered in his favour.

Onana described the court verdict as a victory for investigative journalism in Africa and, above all, for the truth about the complex political situation in Rwanda and the Great Lakes region. On why Kagame failed to beat the three-month deadline to file the case, Onana said: " because he (Kagame) deliberately wanted to avoid discussion on the truth about the shooting down of the presidential plane and about the ensuing Rwandan genocide preventing me from presenting the many evidences I have in court."

The journalist noted that it is now necessary for more people to read the book to know who Mr Kagame really is and what he has been doing in his counry about the plane crash and the genocide.
"Mr Kagame was determined to stop the book's circulation because he wanted to avoid the embarrasment of many many people coming to know about the truth in Rwanda but this verdict has torpedoed his dream", said Onana. 

Onana said he has received positive reactions from many people all over the world, including Rwandans, congratulating him on his court victory, which he said is very encouraging considering the efforts he had put in writing the book.

"This is the best opportunity for Mr Kagame to come out and say the truth and ask for forgiveness for bringing untold suffering to the peoples of DR Congo and Rwanda" says Onana, adding: "the international community should now be in a better place to ask Mr Kagame to say the truth and clear his name about the plane crash and the genocide"

Onana observed that "the attitude of the international community would be suspect if they fail to use this verdict to bring Kagame to book. I think now that the facts have started coming out, now is the time for action!