ARUSHA, Tanzania — The main organizer behind the 1994 slaughter of more than 500,000 people in Rwanda 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.
Theoneste Bagosora was found guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity, Judge Erik Moses said. 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.
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.
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.”
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.
By April 1994, he was the second-highest ranking official in the defense department when the killings started.
The violence followed the downing of the president’s plane by still-unknown attackers as he returned home from peace talks with Tutsi-led rebels.
Hours after the crash, the Interahamwe set up roadblocks across Kigali and the next day began killing Tutsis and moderate Hutus. The slaughter eventually ended after Tutsi rebels invaded from neighboring Uganda and drove out the genocidal forces.
The Tanzania-based 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.
Also Thursday, former military commanders Anatole Nsegiyumva and Alloys Ntabakuze were found guilty of genocide and sentenced to life in prison. The former chief of military operations, Brigadier Gratien Kabiligi, was cleared of all charges and released.
Earlier in the day, Protais Zigiranyirazo was convicted of organizing a massacre in which hundreds of Tutsis died, and was sentenced to 20 years. He has already served seven.
Bagosora’s U.N.-court indictment:
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