ARUSHA, Tanzania | A former Rwandan army colonel behind the 1994 slaughter of more than 500,000 people was convicted of genocide Thursday and sentenced to life in prison - the most significant verdict of a U.N. tribunal set up to bring the killers to justice.
Col. Theoneste Bagosora was found guilty of crimes against humanity, and the court said he used his position as director of Rwanda’s Ministry of Defense to direct Hutu soldiers to kill Tutsis and moderate Hutus.
Former military commanders Anatole Nsengiyumva and Aloys Ntabakuze also were found guilty of genocide and sentenced to life in prison. The former chief of military operations, Brig. Gratien Kabiligi, was cleared of all charges and released.
“It’s been a very important day in the tribunal here with judgments given in respect of very important cases, which shed a lot of light on really what happened on that fateful day, on 6th April 1994, and the few days following thereafter,” Hassan Bubacar Jallow, chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, told French international news channel France 24.
The court said Bagosora “was the highest authority in the Rwandan Ministry of Defense with authority over the Rwandan military” and was responsible for the deaths of former Rwandan Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana and 10 Belgian peacekeepers who tried to protect her as she was killed at the outset of the genocide.
Bagosora, 67, said nothing as the verdict was delivered Thursday, and there was complete silence from the scores of people who had packed into the aisles of the tiny courtroom to hear the judgment.
His conviction was welcomed by genocide survivors, who still live uneasily among perpetrators in the central African nation nearly 15 years later.
About 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 Tanzania-based International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda was set up by the United Nations 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.
Eighteen trials remain under way but none of the defendants is as senior as Bagosora. His attorney, Raphael Constant, has said he will appeal the verdict within a 30-day deadline.
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.
Bagosora was captured in Cameroon in 1996 and has been in custody in Tanzania since 1997.
The killings began April 7, 1994, the day after a plane carrying ethnic Hutu President Juvenal Habyarimana was shot down by unidentified attackers on its approach to Kigali airport. Bagosora was commander of the Kanombe air base in Kigali when the president’s plane went down.