Genocide Criminals Must Bear Blame, Vatican Says

Reacts to Conviction of Rwandan Nuns

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ROME, JUNE 10, 2001 ( The Church cannot be held responsible for the crimes of its members, the Vatican said, following the conviction in Belgium of two nuns for their roles in the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

On Friday, the Brussels Criminal Court sentenced four people to between 12 and 20 years of prison for their part in the genocide.

The four convicted are Vincent Ntezimana, 39, university professor; Alphonse Higaniro, 51, a former government official and entrepreneur; and Benedictine Sisters Consolata Mukangango (Sister Gertrude), 42, and Julienne Mukabutera (Sister Kisito), 36.

The two men were accused of inciting and organizing the killing of Tutsis in the Rwandan region of Butare. The two religious were accused of handing over to Hutu militias several thousand people, who had sought refuge in their convent in Sovu, of which Sister Gertrude was superior. On April 22, 1994, between 5,000 and 7,000 people were killed in that convent.

Just hours after the sentences were passed, in a statement distributed Saturday, Vatican spokesman Joaquín Navarro-Valls recalled John Paul II´s words on May 14, 1996, when he referred to the Rwandan genocide: «The Church […] cannot be considered responsible for the faults of its members, who have acted against the Gospel law. They will be called to render account of their own actions.»

Navarro-Valls acknowledged that the trial has sparked a number of questions.

«It is hoped,» he said, «that the individuals involved were able to count on conditions to make their own version of events heard and that the decision, in a foreign country so far from Rwanda, was considered sufficiently in the context of such violent events and of a situation of great confusion.»

«While awaiting the final sentence,» he added, «the Vatican cannot but express surprise in observing that a few individuals are blamed for the grave responsibilities of numerous men and groups, who were also involved in the genocide that took place in the heart of Africa.»

The weeks-long genocide in Rwanda left 500,000 to 800,000 people dead.

The trial was the first in which a jury of ordinary citizens judged a crime committed in another country. A 1993 Belgian law confers jurisdiction on courts in cases of violations of the Geneva Convention on War Crimes, regardless of where they occur.

Last Friday, the International Crisis Group denounced what it called the inefficiency of the U.N. Court for War Crimes in Rwanda.

According to the group, the International Court, with headquarters in Arusha, Tanzania, has caused an irretrievable delay because of its excessive internal bureaucracy.

To date, the Arusha Court, which includes nine judges, 800 employees, and an annual budget of $90 million, has not tried a single one of the individuals who masterminded the genocide, including a suspect who has been in prison for five years. Others may be released if the statute of limitations expires.

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