Pastor jailed for role in Rwandan church genocide

Stephen Castle
Thursday 20 February 2003 01:00

A Rwandan pastor became the first church leader to be convicted of genocide by a UN tribunal yesterday when he and his son were found guilty of helping to massacre ethnic Tutsis.

Elizaphan Ntakirutimana, a Seventh Day Adventist pastor aged 78, and his doctor son, Gerard, 45, were jailed for their role in some of the most notorious incidents of the 1994 war in Rwanda, when men, women and children were massacred in a church and hospital compound.

The trial in Arusha, Tanzania, was presented with grisly evidence from the prosecution, which produced a letter that lawyers said was sent to Ntakirutimana by a group of Adventist pastors who were subsequently slaughtered in the Kibuye region.

"We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families," the letter reads, a phrase later used as the title for the American author Philip Gourevitch's book on the genocide.

The prosecution said Ntakirutimana replied with the words: "There is nothing I can do for you. All you can do is prepare to die, for your time has come." Yesterday's judgment is an illustration of how even religious leaders and professionals became bound up in the extraordinary savagery of Rwanda's genocide. In sentencing, the Norwegian UN judge Eric Mose said: "Pastor Ntakirutimana distanced himself from his Tutsi pastors and flock in their hour of need," adding that "as a medical doctor [Gerard] took lives instead of saving them."

The case also has echoes of that of two Rwandan nuns who were convicted in Belgium for their role in the campaign of ethnic murder, and who also failed to protect those who sought sanctuary. An estimated 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed in the space of 100 days in the former Belgian colony in 1994 when Hutu extremists wielded machetes and bludgeons and indulged in a frenzy of murder.

The judges sentenced Ntakirutimana to 10 years in jail after taking into account his previous good character and his frail health, while his son will serve 25 years' imprisonment. The court ruled there was not enough evidence to convict Ntakirutimana and his son on some of the charges against them that they denied. It said, though, that the pastor had conveyed attackers to Murambi Church in Bisesero, and ordered the removal of its roof so that it could no longer be used as a shelter for the Tutsi. He also transported armed attackers to various locations to pursue and kill Tutsi and joined vehicle convoys carrying attackers.

The court said his son killed Charles Ukobizaba, a Tutsi accountant, shooting him in the chest from a short distance in a hospital courtyard. He also murdered another person during an attack at a primary school and took part in various attacks on refugees. Subject to appeal, the two will serve their sentences in prisons in Mali, Benin, Swaziland, or potentially other African or European countries currently in negotiations with the international tribunal.

Both doctor and pastor remained expressionless as their sentences were read out. Later, the pastor's defence counsel, the former US attorney general Ramsay Clarke, told journalists that both men would appeal against what he called a "tragic miscarriage of justice". They say they had already left the area before the killing started.

Ntakirutimana, who fled to Texas and was arrested in 1996, was transferred to Arusha in 2000 after a battle against extradition. His son was arrested in Ivory Coast in 1996. The church where the massacre took place has been turned into a museum.

The pastor and his son are the ninth and 10th people to be convicted by the court since its creation in November 1994.

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