ARUSHA, Tanzania — A former Rwandan army colonel was convicted Thursday of genocide and crimes against humanity for masterminding the killings of more than half a million people in a 100-day slaughter in 1994. Survivors in Rwanda welcomed the watershed moment in a long search for justice.
The U.N. courtroom in Tanzania was packed for the culmination of the trial of Theoneste Bagosora, the highest-ranking Rwandan official to be convicted in the genocide. Onlookers were silent as the 67-year-old was sentenced to life in prison.
"Let him think about what he did for the rest of his life," said Jean Pierre Sagahutu, 46, in Rwanda, who lost his parents and seven siblings. He escaped by hiding in a septic tank for 2 1/2 months.
Former military commanders Anatole Nsengiyumva and Aloys Ntabakuze also were found guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity and sentenced to life in prison. The former chief of military operations, Brig. Gratien Kabiligi, was cleared of all charges and released.
The U.N. Security Council created a tribunal in 1994 to prosecute those responsible for "genocide and other serious violations of international humanitarian law."
The 1994 genocide saw government troops, Hutu militia and ordinary villagers spurred on by hate messages broadcast on the radio going from village to village, butchering men, women and children. The consequences still shake the region.
Hutu fighters, chased by the Tutsi military leader who is now Rwanda's president, fled into Congo at the end of the bloodletting. Rwanda has twice invaded Congo, fueling a conflict that drew in a half-dozen African nations.
Recent clashes in eastern Congo, which borders Rwanda, have driven more than 250,000 people from their homes. Laurent Nkunda, a Congolese Tutsi and former general who quit his country's army in 2004 to launch a rebellion, contends he is fighting to protect the region's ethnic Tutsis from Hutu militias.
Perpetrators and victims, meanwhile, struggle to reconcile in Rwanda, a desperately poor and densely packed east African country the size of Vermont.
On Thursday, the court said Bagosora used his position as the highest authority in Rwanda's Ministry of Defense to direct Hutu soldiers to kill Tutsis and moderate Hutus. According to the indictment against him, Bagosora once said he was returning to Rwanda to "prepare the apocalypse."
The court said he was responsible for the deaths of former Rwandan Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana and 10 Belgian peacekeepers who tried to protect her at the outset of the genocide. Belgium had sought Bagosora's extradition for the murder of 10 Belgian peacekeepers.
"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 killings began on 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.
About 2,500 U.N. troops were in Kigali, Rwanda's capital, when the genocide began. Canadian Romeo Dallaire, the U.N. force commander in Rwanda, had repeatedly warned of the looming slaughter and sought more troops and authority to stop it, but was refused.
The U.N. and former President Bill Clinton have apologized for failing to intervene. Allegations the international community failed to respond quickly and decisively to crises in Sudan and elsewhere in Africa in subsequent years have been cited as proof the lessons of Rwanda were all too quickly forgotten.
The U.S. called the convictions an important step in providing justice and accountability for the Rwandan people and the international community.
"The conviction of Mr. Bagosora shows that even those at the highest levels of government are not immune from prosecution in the face of such grave atrocities," said Sean McCormack, a State Department spokesman.
The U.S. urged countries to continue cooperating with the tribunal, which is still seeking the arrest and transfer of 13 fugitives in the case.
Some 63,000 people are suspected of taking part in the genocide. Many have been sentenced by community-based courts, called "gacaca," where suspects were encouraged to confess and seek forgiveness in exchange for lighter sentences.
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. The tribunal 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, who was captured in Cameroon in 1996, has been in custody in Tanzania since 1997, and is to serve his sentence here. His lawyer, Raphael Constant, has said he will appeal the verdict within a 30-day deadline.
"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."
Also Thursday, Protais Zigiranyirazo, 70, was convicted of organizing a massacre in which hundreds of Tutsis died, and was sentenced to 20 years. Zigiranyirazo _ the brother-in-law of the Rwandan president who was killed in the 1994 plane crash _ gets credit for seven years already served in prison.
The chief prosecutor at the tribunal said "it would appear to me that 20 years for a genocide may be on the low side."
"We are reviewing that aspect of it and will eventually decide whether to pursue an appeal against the sentence or not," Jallow told France 24.
Chris Hennemeyer, who was a relief worker in Rwanda and is a vice president at the U.S.-based International Foundation for Electoral Systems, said "the important thing is that he's behind bars and at his age he won't get out until he's very elderly."
Hutus, by far the majority in Rwanda, had overthrown a Tutsi monarchy three years before independence from Belgium in 1962 and took power. Ethnic tensions were unresolved, and rebels, most of them ethnic Tutsis, invaded from their base in neighboring Uganda in 1990.
Habyarimana, a Hutu, had been negotiating peace with the rebels when his plane was shot down.
Bagosora had participated in international talks arranged in the early 1990s, but 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 him as saying.
Hours after Habyarimana's plane crashed, militants from the Hutu ethnic majority known as Interahamwe set up roadblocks across Kigali and the next day began killing Tutsis and moderate Hutus. The slaughter ended after Tutsi rebels led by Paul Kagame, now the president, drove out the genocidal forces.
Tutsis now dominate the nation's government and army.
Reed Brody, a specialist in international justice for Human Rights Watch, said Thursday's 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."
Bryson reported from Johannesburg, South Africa. Associated Press writers Katharine Houreld in Nairobi, Kenya, and Joelle Diderich in Paris contributed to this report.