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The 17th chamber of the French high court in Paris was the scene of a chain of dramatic flip-flops on 8 April as the court began to hear a case brought by the Rwandan president, Paul Kagame, against the Paris-based freelance journalist and author, Charles Onana.

The journalist is charged with defamation for publishing a book titled: "Les Secrets du Genocide Rwandais - Enquete sur les Mysteres d'un President" (The secrets of the Rwanda genocide-investigation into the mysteries of a president"), which alleges that Kagame was the principal suspect in the shooting down of President Juvenal Habyarimana's plane on 6 April 1994 which, according to him, sparked off the Rwandan genocide.

The book blames Kagame and his RPF army for shooting down the Falcon 50 plane, using two ground-to-air missiles. Also on the plane was the Burundian president, Cyprien Ntaryamira. The two presidents were returning from a peace summit in Tanzania.

Though he says he has been defamed, Kagame does not want money. He is calling on the French court to order the author to pay one symbolic euro to the Rwandan state for prejudice suffered as a result of the defamation.

He also wants the accused to publish the court's judgement in the foreign media. In addition, the court should order Onana to pay 5,000 euros for each copy of the book found in the bookstores.

Kagame's lawyer, Natasha Renaudin, charges that investigations into the shooting of the plane are underway before the French judge, Jean Louis Bruguiere, and accuses Onana of not respecting the principle of "presumption of innocence" for Kagame in the whole affair.

When the case opened on 8 April, the prosecution asked the judge to order the book withdrawn from the market. But the president of the threeman council of judges, Madame Dubreuil, refused the prosecution's request on the grounds that Kagame was not an accused person before Judge Bruguiere. The court adjourned till 29 April.

Onana has described the case as "an attempt to stifle the truth".

The worry of the prosecution is understandable when viewed against the backdrop of the overwhelming demand for the book since its publication on 10 December 2001. Interestingly, Deo Mushayidi, a Tutsi journalist and former Kagame spokesman, helped Onana to write the book.

"Over 2,000 copies have been sold since Kagame filed the suit, and the demand is increasing," Onana, born in Cameroon, told New African.

"The English version of the book will soon be out to let the 'truth' reach a much wider audience," he added.

He says the demand for the book confirms his claim that it represents the beginning of the end of the many lies that have been told about the Rwandan genocide, which he argues was not planned but spontaneous following the shooting down of Habyarimana's plane.

According to Onana, he based his book on the hypothesis that both the Tutsis and Hutus committed crimes; both sides had victims, and most of the time it was very difficult to tell the difference between the Hum and Tutsi killers or victims.

He says the many provocations from the Tutsis following the downing of the plane contributed immensely to the genocide.

"That is why this book is seen as an eye opener to help the search for the truth surrounding the 1994 genocide. I hope that it will help the international community to break its silence on the issue of the shooting down of the plane," says Onana, adding "How was it possible for the plane to be shot down by a missile when it was landing at the Kigali airport then manned by UN peacekeepers?"

Support

When the case finally opened in court on 8 April, there was a show of support for Onana by dozens of Rwandans, mostly Hutus, who either came to court or went to demonstrate in front of the Rwandan embassy in Paris. One of the placards read: "We want to know the truth."

Emmanuel Rwirangira, one of the organisers of the demonstration, told New African: "We are here to call on the Rwandan authorities to investigate the shooting down of the presidential plane, which we believe provoked the genocide. We are here also to show support for the journalist who is appearing in court today for bringing out the truth about the situation in Rwanda."

Another demonstrator, Antoine Nyetera, a Tutsi and a member of the royal family in Rwanda said that the genocide really began in 1990 when Tutsis and Hutus systematically massacred each other. Nyetera wondered why the international community seemed to be ignoring that and the shooting down of the presidential plane.

"Although I'm a Tutsi, I'm here to show solidarity with Onana's who has done a good job for telling the truth and for the realisation of peace and reconciliation in our country," Nyetera said.

The co-author of the book, DEo Mushayidi, was left out in the indictment but came to demonstrate nonetheless.

Not all Tutsis however, seem to agree with the authors. They organised a rival demonstration against the book in front of the French high court while it was in session on 8 April.

One of them, Oscar Ngaboyera, who came all the way from Belgium for the demonstration, said: "We are demonstrating against the book by Onana, the revisionist, and to support the Rwandan government's court action against him for defamation. Most of us here lost all our family members in the genocide which Onana has misrepresented in his book."

Ngaboyera said the genocide started in 1959 but regretted that nobody had been punished to serve as a deterrent. On the question of reconciliation, he said: "Reconciliation without justice is useless because it will leave room for more massacres in the future."

But Onana himself appears to be least,ruled by the opposition. It was "a small number of about 30 Tutsis", he said, adding that he was rather encouraged by the large turn-out of "more than 200 people, Hutu and Tutsi combined" who came to demonstrate in his favour.