Rwandan gets 20 years in genocide trial

A Belgian court sentenced a former Rwandan army major to 20 years in prison on Thursday for the murder of 10 Belgian peacekeepers and an undetermined number of Rwandan civilians at the start of the 1994 genocide.

Bernard Ntuyahaga was earlier acquitted on two other charges of involvement in the murder of then Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana and killing civilians in the Butare district.

The public prosecutor had asked for a life sentence for the accused’s role in the genocide, in which some 800,000 ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slaughtered.

“He remains a Hutu extremist and will probably remain it for the rest of his life,” prosecutor Philippe Mere said, adding that Ntuyahaga (55) had expressed no remorse.

But the jury decided on a more lenient penalty, which presiding judge Karine Gerard said left the door open for reconciliation among Rwandans.

“This sentence is not a cause for despair,” she told Ntuyahaga, who remained silent.

The Belgian United Nations soldiers were killed a day after the Rwandan president’s plane was shot down on April 6 1994, triggering the genocide by Hutu-led government forces and ethnic militias.

Prosecutors said Ntuyahaga took the peacekeepers from the residence of the prime minister, whom they were trying to protect, and handed them over to fellow soldiers at a military camp in the capital, Kigali, where they were beaten to death, shot or slain with machetes.

The defence said Ntuyahaga was a political scapegoat, who had only been passing the prime minister’s residence by chance and had given the Belgians a ride at their request.

In a last brief statement before the jury retired to consider the sentence, his lawyer called the trial unfair and told the jury to beware of the prosecution’s “hate speech”.

Defence attorney Luc De Temmerman said Ntuyahaga would appeal against the verdict on procedural grounds as Belgian law does not allow appeals on substance at this stage of procedure.

Opening the way to genocide

The killing of the peacekeepers triggered the pull-out of UN forces, opening the way for the genocide to spread.

“If Belgian troops had stayed [in Rwanda] we could have saved hundreds of thousands of people,” Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt told the court in his testimony in May.

Rwandans welcomed the Belgian court’s verdict.

“The conviction was a right decision taken by the court,” Martin Ngoga, Rwanda’s chief prosecutor told Reuters. “We had earlier wanted him to be extradited and face trial in Rwanda but now that he has received a conviction, it’s good news for us.”

Theodore Simburudali, president of Ibuka, an umbrella body that groups genocide survivors, said: “The truth has come out, which we have always said. Those top military officials killed many of our people—he deserves a big sentence.”

But Joseph Plescias, brother of Louis Plescias, one of the 10 soldiers killed, told reporters at the courthouse: “It’s scandal.
Belgium is really a paradise for criminals.”

Belgium has been seeking justice for its murdered soldiers for 13 years. Judges at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda dropped genocide and war crimes charges against Ntuyahaga in 1999.

After lengthy attempts to extradite him, the former officer flew to Belgium voluntarily in 2004 but the trial only began in April this year.

It is not the first time Rwandans have stood trial in Belgium over the genocide. Two Catholic nuns, a university professor and a businessman were sentenced in 2001 to between 12 and 20 years’ jail for aiding the mass murders. - Reuters 2007

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