A United Nations-backed court in Tanzania on Thursday convicted the one of the masterminds of the Rwandan genocide – a decision that is an important milestone both for a record of truth telling in Rwanda and for international justice.
Theoneste Bagasora, a former Rwandan Army colonel, was found guilty of "genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes" in the 1994 slaughter of more than 800,000 people. The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda also convicted ex-military commanders Anatole Nsengiyumva and Aloys Ntabakuze of genocide. All three were sentenced to life in prison.
Mr. Bagasora was the "highest authority in the Rwanda Ministry of Defense" and was captured in 1996, two years after Hutu militias, backed by the Army, went on a 100-day killing spree that targeted minority Tutsis and moderate Hutus.
"The Bagasora verdict is a rebuke to the self-serving and demagogic argument by al-Bashir and his supporters that accountability and justice through an international court is somehow 'anti-African,' " says Richard Dicker of Human Rights Watch in New York. "This is a conviction by an international tribunal for genocide against Africans, and it serves African victims."
The Rwandan genocide is regarded as the most horrifying slaughter of innocent people in a concentrated period of time since the Khmer Rouge massacres in Cambodia 30 years ago. Since the crimes in Cambodia have yet to be adjudicated, the UN-backed tribunal in Tanzania took on the worst killings since the Nurembourg court after World War II and Auschwitz.
Justice experts hailed the Bagasora conviction as another important verdict, marking a slow rise in importance for international courts and tribunals in the past year. In recent months, Radovan Karadzic, mastermind of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, has been brought to the former Yugoslavia tribunal at The Hague.
Bagasora may be the highest ranking individual charged and found guilty of genocide. He may be on par, in terms of level of culpability, with still unapprehended Serbian general Ratko Mladic. Another Serbian general, Radislav Krstic, was found guilty of genocide in the Srebrenica massacre in Yugoslavia in 1995. But Kristic was also found not to have organized the genocide – as Bagarsora was in the Thursday ruling.
"The concept of accountability – of no one being above the law – has developed seriously," says Sara Darehshori, a prosecutor for the Rwanda tribunal in 1996. "At the beginning, the Rwanda tribunal was a novel institution. But today the international justice system is taken seriously."
Part of the importance of tribunals in nations devastated by ethnic cleansing or genocide is their usefulness as a somewhat impartial record of what happened, say legal specialists. Trials and conclusive verdicts play a role as much in the social and political lives of states as in the legal efforts to bring about justice.
"This leaves a clear legal record and a record in which legal weight is attached. This is where history and law meet," says Ana Uzelac, an independent expert specializing in postconflict justice at the Hague.
"The Bagarsora verdict is, first, hugely important for Rwanda. The trial offers a legal narrative that tells what happened. Tribunals have been reluctant to claim ownership of their role. But now we have a truth finding for Rwanda – a narrative of the organization of genocide through reliable documents and witnesses," she says. [Editor's note: The original version incorrectly added words to Ms. Uzelac's quote.]
For Rwanda, part of the record of the 100 days of killing in 1994 remains unaddressed, says Ms. Darehshori.
There has still been no serious effort to prosecute soldiers from the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front that fought the Hutu militias. Ms.Darehshori says there is no equivalency between the Hutu-led slaughter and the Tutsi killings. But that crimes by the RPF were "part of the picture."