The Tanzania-based International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda had accused former army Col. Theoneste Bagosora, 67, of being in charge of the troops and Interahamwe Hutu militia who butchered between 500,000 and 800,000 minority Tutsis and moderate Hutus in 100 days.
“Colonel Bagosora is guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity and war crimes,” the court said, marking the most significant verdict of a U.N. tribunal set up to bring the killers to justice.
The court said that Bagosora used his position as the former director of Rwanda’s Ministry of Defense to direct Hutu soldiers to kill Tutsis and moderate Hutus.
Bagosora also was found responsible for the deaths of former Rwandan Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana and 10 Belgian peacekeepers.
Bagasora said nothing as the verdict was delivered, and there was complete silence from the scores of people who had packed into the aisles of the tiny courtroom to hear the judgment, the Associated Press reported.
Two other military officers also on trial, Maj. Aloys Ntabakuze and Col. Anatole Nsengiyumva, were sentenced to life imprisonment for “genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.” However, a fourth co-defendant, Gen. Gratien Kabiligi, was acquitted of all charges against him and the court ordered his release, the New York Times reported.
According to the indictment, Bagosora had participated in international talks arranged in the early 1990s with the aim of ending Rwanda’s long-simmering political crisis. Bagosora grew angry with government delegates he deemed soft on Tutsi-led rebels and said he was returning to Rwanda to “‘prepare the apocalypse,” the indictment quoted Bagosora as saying.
In Rwanda, Bagosora’s conviction was welcomed by genocide survivors who live uneasily alongside perpetrators nearly 15 years later.
Some 63,000 people are suspected of taking part in the genocide, although many of them have been sentenced by community-based courts, where suspects were encouraged to confess and seek forgiveness in exchange for lighter sentences.
“Bagosora … is the person behind all the massacres,” said Jean Paul Rurangwa, 32, who lost his father and two sisters. “The fact that he was sentenced to the biggest punishment the
court can give is a relief.”
The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda was set up by the U.N. in 1994 to try those responsible for the killings and had its first conviction in 1997. There have been 42 judgments, of which six have been acquittals. It does not have the power to impose the death sentence.
More than 500,000 minority Tutsis and political moderates from the Hutu majority were killed in the 100-day slaughter organized by the extremist Hutu government then in power. Government troops, Hutu militia and ordinary villagers spurred on by hate messages broadcast over the radio went from village to village, butchering men, women and children.
The genocide began in April 1994 when the plane of Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana, a Hutu, was shot down above Kigali airport.
A French judge has blamed current President Paul Kagame — at the time the leader of a Tutsi rebel group — and some of his close associates for carrying out the rocket attack, the BBC reported. Kagame vehemently denies this and says it was the work of Hutu extremists, in order to provide a pretext to carry out their well-laid plans to exterminate the Tutsi community.
Regardless of the responsible party, a campaign of violence began within hours and spread from the capital throughout the country.
It did not subside until three months later. The slaughter eventually ended after Tutsi rebels invaded from neighboring Uganda and drove out the genocidal forces.
Reed Brody, a specialist in international justice for Human Rights Watch, said the sentence sent a clear message to other world leaders accused of crimes against humanity and genocide, like Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir.
“It says watch out. Justice can catch up with you,” Brody said. “The authors of genocide can and will be punished by the international community.”