18 confess to Rwanda genocide

2003-12-03 10:41

Kigali, Rwanda - A Rwandan court convicted 18 people on Tuesday for their role in the killing of 20 000 men, women and children sheltering in a church compound during the 1994 genocide, a justice official said.

The court also found one other defendant guilty of a lesser charge of stealing property during the genocide and ordered him to compensate his victims, said Judge Moise Ruzezwa, who presided over the case.

The court in Kibungo province sentenced the 18 men to prison terms ranging from seven to 25 years for the killings, Ruzezwa said by telephone from the province, which is 100km southeast of the capital, Kigali.

"They confessed in court that they played a role in the killing, that is why the sentences were lenient when compared to the maximum penalty of death or life imprisonment," Ruzezwa said.

Prosecutors said the accused joined members of the former government army, the police and extremist Hutu militias who attacked the Nyarubuye Roman Catholic church compound on April 15, 1994.

"They attacked people sheltering there and killed indiscriminately using spears, machetes, clubs, hand grenades and automatic weapons," Ruzezwa said.

The feared leader of the group who shouted instructions at others to kill, Gitera Rwamuhizi, was sentenced to 25 years in prison after pleading guilty to killing 10 people.

More than 500 000 people were killed during the genocide, mainly minority Tutsis and political moderates from the Hutu majority. The 100-day slaughter was spurred by the extremist Hutu government then in power. The mass killings ended when Tutsi-led rebels took control of the central African country.

The trial was one of many taking place throughout this tiny central African nation of eight million people. On average, between 30 and 40 defendants appear before each tribunal. Whenever possible, the trials are held where the crimes took place.

About 120 000 prisoners in Rwanda are awaiting trial on genocide charges in overcrowded jails. Trying to clear the backlog, authorities released some prisoners facing lesser charges to their home areas, where they face trial in local courts.

In neighbouring Tanzania, a UN tribunal also is trying several dozen people indicted on major genocide charges in Rwanda's war. The maximum sentence that tribunal can hand down is life in prison.