BRUSSELS, Belgium, JUNE 8, 2001 (Zenit.org).- A jury sentenced four Rwandans, including two nuns, to prison terms of 12 to 20 years today after convicting them of homicide in the 1994 massacres in their homeland.
Benedictine Sister Gertrude, also known as Consolata Mukangango, received a 15-year sentence for her role in the massacre of some 7,000 people seeking refuge at her convent in southern Rwanda.
Sister Maria Kisito, also known as Julienne Mukabutera, received a 12-year sentence.
Alphonse Higaniro, a businessman, received a 20-year sentence, and university professor Vincent Ntezimana was ordered jailed for 12 years.
The 12-member jury passed the sentence. The prosecution had sought life sentences for all four defendants.
The principal accuser of the two nuns was Emmanuel Rekeraho, who in the spring of 1994 led militias that carried out massacres in Sovu, near Butare.
“Although they did not use arms to kill people, Sister Gertrude and Sister Kisito would take Tutsis out of their places of hiding and hand them over,” Rekeraho told the International Criminal Court for Rwanda. “They shared our hatred for the Tutsis.”
More than 500,000 people died in 100 days of massacres organized by the former Hutu government of Rwanda.
The trial, which lasted almost eight weeks, was the first in which a jury of citizens judged a crime committed in another country. A 1993 Belgian law gives courts jurisdiction over violations of the Geneva Convention on War Crimes, regardless of where they occurred.
News of the sentence had a great impact on the Catholic community in Rwanda.
Father Dominique Karekezi, director of the Kilgali religious newspaper Information, told Vatican Radio: “Obviously, it is a sorrow for all the Church in Rwanda, and also for the whole universal Church. Above all, religious are witnesses of Christ and defenders of life. We are not judges; human justice can be mistaken. Perhaps they did not have a proper attitude during the tragedy.”
Some observers speculated that the nuns were forced to act this way to save their lives.
“I think that at that time we were all terrified,” Father Karekezi said. “Truly, I cannot know the circumstances experienced at that time by the nuns. But the people wonder about the nuns´ attitude, especially when they heard that they gave the gasoline that was used to burn the house in which 500 people had sought refuge, who later died.”
Father Ephrem Tresoldi, Comboni missionary in Africa and former director of Nigrizia magazine, told Vatican Radio: “We must also recognize that this reality does not cancel all the acts of heroism carried out by Christians and people belonging to the two ethnic [groups], Hutus and Tutsis, who sacrificed themselves, giving their lives to save that of others belonging to the other ethnic [group].”
Father Tresoldi said the fact that the trial took place in Belgium is a limitation, since it made the gathering of evidence more difficult.
He wondered if the defense has been able to count on all the elements, “because the accused were virtually isolated. Some wondered if the defense was given the effective possibility of expressing itself properly.”
The Catholic Church paid an enormous price during the genocide. The Vatican missionary agency Fides reported that three bishops, 123 priests and more than 300 nuns were killed. A fourth bishop is described as “disappeared.”
On May 15, 1994, when the conflict was at its height, John Paul II was the first to call the Rwandan massacre a genocide. He said: “All will have to answer for their crimes before history and, especially, before God.”