Two Rwandan Nuns Convicted of War Crimes

ByABC News
June 8, 2001, 2:12 PM

B R U S S E L S, Belgium, June 8 -- 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.