Pascal Simbikangwa was found guilty of genocide and complicity in crimes against humanity in a landmark 2014 trial that marked a turning point in France’s approach to genocide suspects living on its soil.
Simbikangwa, 56, who insists he is innocent, launched an appeal in October prompting a six-week trial that was decided by nine jurors and three magistrates.
Prosecutors argued that his conviction should be upheld, but Simbikangwa insisted he had been “demonized”.
“This is my day: either it’s freedom or (my) ordeal goes on,” he told the court in Bobigny, outside Paris, before it retired to consider its verdict.
Previously, France, widely considered to have supported the Rwandan Hutu regime that carried out the bulk of the killings, had been accused of dragging its feet on prosecuting cases.
Simbikangwa, who has been confined to a wheelchair since a car crash in the 1980s, was accused of organising roadblocks where Hutu militia murdered many of their victims, mostly members of the Tutsi minority.
He was also accused of arming the militia.
“I was a soldier but after my accident I returned to civilian life,” he told the court earlier this week.
Over 800,000 people were killed in the three-month orgy of slaughter which began when the plane of then president Juvenal Habyarimana, a Hutu, was shot down in April 1994.
Simbikangwa caused a sensation at his trial by declaring he had never seen any victims’ bodies during the massacres.
His defence relied on the fact that the prosecution produced no direct witnesses to his alleged crimes.
The former presidential guard member was arrested in 2008 on the French Indian Ocean island of Mayotte, where he had been living under a false identity.