Thirteen years after the 1994 Rwandan genocide left 500,000 to 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus dead, a Belgian court on Wednesday found former Rwandan Army Maj. Bernard Ntuyahaga guilty of murdering 10 Belgian UN peacekeepers and an unknown number of civilians. The slaughter of the peacekeepers is widely regarded as having helped spark the 100-day-long mass killing.
The UN peacekeepers were guarding Rwandan Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana. When Rwanda's Hutu president died in a plane crash, Prime Minister Uwilingiyimana planned to deliver a radio address calling for calm. The Associated Press reports that Major Ntuyahaga allegedly spread rumors that the Belgians had shot down the plane. He then lured the peacekeepers to a nearby Rwandan military camp where they were beaten and lynched. Ntuyahaga still insists he is innocent, saying he has been made a "scapegoat." He claims to have coincidentally passed by the camp during the killings without getting involved.
Bernadette Muhorakeye, Ntuyahaga's daughter, protested the jury's decision.
''It is not the truth, it is not right,'' she told VRT television. ''The truth will come out one day.''
The court heard over 150 witnesses and surveyed some 70,000 pages of evidence during the trial which aimed to reveal more about the start of the Rwanda genocide.
The murder of the peacekeepers caused the nation to withdraw its peacekeepers from the troubled African nation. Reuters reports that the decision, especially in light of the subsequent genocide, has long been a troubling issue for Belgians.
The killing of the peacekeepers triggered the pullout of U.N. forces, opening the way for the genocide to spread.
"If Belgian troops had stayed (in Rwanda) we could have saved hundreds of thousands of people," Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt told the court in his testimony in May.
The Times, a London newspaper, reports that the trial allowed relatives of the victims to hear the details about their family members' deaths.
The murder of the ten soldiers has haunted Belgium because it led to the withdrawal of its peacekeepers from its former colony, leaving Hutu gangs free to carry out the genocide.
Relatives of the slain Belgians heard gruesome details in the Brussels court of how the peacekeepers were tricked into giving up their weapons and driven by Ntuyahaga to an army base. At the Kigali camp, the prosecution said there was a stage-managed revolt by Rwandan forces under Ntuyahaga's command. The Belgians tried to find refuge in a hut, but were captured, lynched, beaten, slashed with machetes and shot.
The BBC reports that the family members were relieved that the case finally came to an end.
Christine Dupont, the widow of Belgian peacekeeper Christophe Dupont, said before the verdict: "It's a very important day, a day we have been waiting for the last 13 years."
Ntuyahaga and his attorneys plan to appeal the verdict on procedural grounds. Belgian law does not permit the appeal of a case based on substance at this stage. In 1998, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, an international UN-sponsored court, charged Ntuyahaga with conspiracy to commit genocide, genocide or complicity in genocide, war crimes, and two counts of crimes against humanity, reports Trial Watch.
On 13 November 1998, at his initial appearance before the ICTR, Bernard Ntuyahaga pleaded not guilty to the charges.
On 18 March 1999, however the ICTR withdrew the charges against Ntuyahaga but the judges stated that they were unable, as requested by the prosecution, to hand him over to the Belgian judicial authorities, which wished to take up his case. Ntuyahaga was therefore released on 29 March but was rearrested the following day by the Tanzanian authorities and charged with entering the country illegally. Belgium and Rwanda had both requested his extradition, but after a prolonged procedure, Tanzania rejected his extradition to Rwanda.
At the end of March 2004, on his own free will, Bernard Ntuyahaga, accompanied by a Belgian diplomat, flew to Brussels where he gave himself up and was put in remand.
Ntuyahaga, who could face a life sentence in prison, is not the first to be tried by a Belgian court for crimes committed during the Rwandan genocide, reports Agence France-Presse.
The hearing in Brussels, which began on April 13, was the third case related to the events in Rwanda to be tried in Belgium.
In a landmark trial in June 2001, a court sentenced four Rwandans, including two nuns, to between 12 and 20 years in prison for their roles in the massacres.
In June 2005, a court sentenced two businessmen from northern Rwanda to 10 and 12 years in prison after finding them guilty of war crimes and murder linked to the genocide.