In a landmark ruling, a Paris court jailed for life Wednesday two former Rwandan mayors accused of orchestrating the massacre of hundreds of Tutsis during the country\’s 1994 genocide.
The court said Octavien Ngenzi, 58, and his predecessor Tito Barahira, 64, were guilty of "crimes against humanity", "massive and systematic summary executions" and "genocide" in their village of Kabarondo, where some 2,000 people seeking refuge in a church were bludgeoned and hacked to death.
Ngenzi and Barahira have consistently denied the charges. Both appeared impassive as the judge read out their sentences.
It was the stiffest genocide sentence ever handed out by a French court. In 2014, former Rwandan army captain Pascal Simbikangwa got 25 years in solitary confinement for genocide and crimes against humanity.
The eight-week trial has heard chilling testimony depicting the two men as "supervisors" and "executioners" in the massacre at the height of the genocide in which 800,000 people, mostly ethnic Tutsis, were killed by Hutu extremists.
"Ngenzi was the leader," said prosecutor Philippe Courroye, who requested life sentences for the two men. Barahira was the "dreaded machete officer," he added.
Ngenzi and Barahira\’s lawyers had pointed to contradictory testimony delivered 22 years after the killings to argue that reasonable doubt exists over their role, portraying them as having been helpless to stop the chaos unfolding around them.
"I am extremely disappointed but not really surprised," said Philippe Meilhac, Barahira\’s lawyer, after the ruling adding that his client may appeal the verdict.
A lawyer for the civil parties to the case, Gilles Paruelle, told the jury: "To kill one man, hatred is sufficient. To kill 1,000, you need organisation."
Alain Gauthier, whose organisation is one of the civil parties in the case, was jubilant.
"The jury has understood the distress of the victims," he said. "We hope that this sentencing signifies that one cannot live with impunity in France."
His wife Dafroza, whose family was wiped out in the genocide, said she was "comforted" but would be "taking up the fight" again to bring other genocide offenders to justice.
The violence broke out in Kabarondo a week after the shooting down of a plane carrying Rwanda\’s president Juvenal Habyarimana, which inflamed ethnic tensions and sparked the genocide.
Among those seeking shelter at the church on April 13, 1994, when the genocidal Hutu "Interahamwe" militia attacked, was Marie Mukamunana, who told the court how her seven children and husband were killed by grenades and machetes.
"Someone said \’don\’t waste the bullets\’ and they continued with machetes," she said.
She recalled seeing former mayor Barahira "armed with a gun, among the Interahamwe" and testified that Ngenzi was "supervising the massacre."
Jean-Damascene Rutagungira — who lost 21 members of his family including his wife and children — told the court he saw the pair encouraging the killers, shouting "cut them down."
The bloodshed in Kabarondo, a town near the border with Tanzania, was over by the end of April, when Tutsi rebels in the armed wing of what is now the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (FPR) took control of the area.
Elsewhere in the former Belgian colony, the slaughter continued until the FPR fighters finally prevailed in July.
Ngenzi and Barahira were sentenced in absentia to life imprisonment by Rwandan people\’s courts, known as "gacaca", in 2009.
Ngenzi has been in custody since 2010 when he was captured in the French Indian Ocean territory of Mayotte off the east coast of Africa, where he had been living under a false name.
Barahira was arrested in 2013 in the southwestern French city of Toulouse where he was living.
The UN International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, which ended its mandate in 2015, sentenced 61 people for their role in the genocide.
Alleged perpetrators of the genocide have also been captured and tried in Belgium, France, Sweden, Canada, Finland, Germany, Norway, the Netherlands and the United States.