NAIROBI, Kenya -
The ringleader of the 1994 Rwanda genocide was sentenced yesterday to life in prison for his role in the early days of an ethnic slaughter that eventually killed an estimated 800,000 people.
Theoneste Bagosora, 67, was the highest-ranking military officer convicted at the U.N. International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. The former colonel's prosecution was viewed as a significant step in efforts to punish war crimes.
"This victory sends a message to people like the warlords in Darfur or those committing horrendous rapes and killing in Congo," said Barbara Mulvaney, a Southern California attorney who served as chief prosecutor. "Every time one of these guys goes down, the message is: Sooner or later you are going to be held accountable."
Judges found that Bagosora, as Cabinet director of the Defense Ministry, was culpable in the deaths of former Rwandan Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana, four opposition leaders and 10 Belgian peacekeepers. He was also convicted of overseeing four days of deadly rampages around the country.
But judges rejected allegations that Bagosora and others plotted as early as 1990 to prepare for the genocide. Tribunal officials had charged Bagosora with "conspiracy to commit genocide," hoping a conviction on that charge would refute those who still deny genocide occurred and claim the violence was a spontaneous eruption of ethnic hostility.
The judges affirmed that genocide took place but ruled that evidence was insufficient to prove Bagosora and others conspired to commit mass killings.
The 100-day massacre began in April 1994 and pitted Hutu extremists against Tutsi and Hutu moderates. Incited by hate messages on radio and armed by government officials, ordinary Rwandans carried out much of the killing with machetes.
The verdict brought a much-needed victory to the U.N.-sponsored tribunal, which has come under fire for spending too much time and money in prosecuting crimes that occurred 14 years ago. By convicting the man many viewed as the mastermind, the tribunal has accomplished one of its chief mandates, legal experts said.
The court became a model for the development of an international justice system, including the International Criminal Court. "Just a few years ago these kinds of crimes were swept under the rug," Mulvaney said. "But in a short time that's changed, and that is in large part due to this tribunal."
In Rwanda, where ethnic tension between Hutus and Tutsis is still raw, the verdict was received coolly. When the sentence was announced during a meeting in the capital, lawmakers remained silent. At times, the government has clashed with the tribunal over who should try suspects.
But some genocide survivors expressed satisfaction. "This justice is going to help the victims of the genocide recover their dignity," said Didacienne Mukahabeshimana, a Rwandan human-rights activist who is half-Hutu and half-Tutsi.
As the verdict was read in the tribunal's courtroom in Arusha, Tanzania, television pictures showed Bagosora sitting quietly, separated from a public gallery by bulletproof glass and listening to translation through earphones. He showed no emotion as the sentence was rendered but afterward smiled and posed for photos with his attorneys.
Under the rules of the tribunal, a death sentence was not an option.
Bagosora stepped up to run the country after the assassination of Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana, whose plane was shot down as it approached Kigali, the capital, on April 6, 1994.
Shocked by the killing of U.N. peacekeepers the next day, U.N. officials in New York ordered a withdrawal, leaving hundreds of thousands of Tutsis and moderate Hutus at the mercy of Hutu extremists. The killing continued until Tutsi rebels seized control three months later.
During his defense, Bagosora denied that any genocide occurred.