B R U S S E L S, Belgium, June 8, 2001 -- Prosecutors demanded life sentences today for four Rwandans convicted of war crimes in the African nation's 1994 genocide, while defense lawyers argued that heavy sentences would harm efforts to reconcile Hutus and Tutsis.
The four — two Benedictine nuns, a factory owner and a university professor — were convicted in a trial that human rights campaigners hailed as a precedent for legal action against suspected war criminals, wherever they may hide.
After returning the guilty verdicts early today, the jury returned to court in the afternoon to decide on sentences.
"You will hear calls for clemency from the defense team," chief prosecutor Alain Winants told the jury. "I ask you, did the victims receive any gestures of clemency or pity? No, none at all."
Two Nuns, a Professor and a Factory Owner
Sister Gertrude Mukangango and Sister Maria Kisito were found guilty of all homicide counts of against them stemming from several days of slaughter at their convent in southern Rwanda, where up to 7,000 people were burned and butchered to death.
Alphonse Higaniro, a factory owner and former government minister, was also found guilty on all counts, while the fourth defendant, university professor Vincent Ntezimana, was judged guilty on five counts of homicide and cleared on five others.
The two men were accused with helping to plan and carry out the slayings of members of Rwanda's Tutsi minority during 13 weeks of violence that killed more than 500,000 Tutsis and Hutu moderates.
The defendants face a maximum of life imprisonment, which in Belgium usually means at least 20 years.
"A life sentence would be the negation of any hope of reconciliation," defense attorney Serge Wahlis told the jury.
Quiet Anger and Loud Protest
The trial, which lasted almost eight weeks, was the first in which a jury of citizens from one country judged defendants in war crimes committed in another country. A 1993 Belgian law gives local courts jurisdiction over violations of the Geneva Convention on war crimes, no matter where they occurred.
"This is a big step forward for international justice. It shows that such a trial can be organized, that you can have a fair trial for events that happen on the other side of the world," said Reed Brody, advocacy director of Human Rights Watch.
"The idea that justice has no border has received a big boost here."
The two nuns, dressed in beige-and-brown habits, showed no emotion as the court clerk confirmed the verdict. All four defendants stood motionless, eyes fixed on the bench.
The 12-member jury included a hairdresser, a truck driver, a university teacher and a journalist. They deliberated for 11 hours before reading out the verdicts.
The judgments were met with anger by a group of Hutu youths among the many Rwandans in the packed public gallery. Relatives of genocide victims hugged and wept quietly.
"They have given a human face to people that were killed like animals," said Marguerite Lens-Nyirajhninka, who said she had lost all of her family in the Rwandan genocide. "Today, we can feel our humanity has been recognized."
Looked for Salvation in Belgium
Prosecutors claimed the two nuns encouraged and collaborated with the Hutu mob that repeatedly attacked Tutsis seeking shelter at the Sovu convent in the green hills of southern Rwanda.
Witnesses told the court the two nuns called in militias to clear the Tutsis from the convent grounds. They were accused of supplying gasoline to the mob that burned some 500 people to death as they cowered in the convent's garage, and of guiding the killers to the hiding places of doomed Tutsi men, women and children.
Defense lawyers said the women were innocent bystanders, unable to halt the slaughter. The two male defendants also denied the charges. Immediately after the verdict, defense attorneys said it was too early to say if they would appeal.
Ntezimana and Higaniro were accused of being Hutu extremists who virulently opposed proposals to share power with Tutsi rebels and responded by helping plan and carry out the genocide in their southern region.
The four fled to Belgium — Rwanda's former colonial ruler — after the rebels took control of the country in July 1994 and put an end to the killings of Tutsis.