A Final Measure of Justice in the Rwandan Genocide

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Tony Karumba / AFP / Getty

Theoneste Bagosora arrives in court where he was sentenced to life in prison for masterminding the 1994 Rwanda genocide.

If there was ever a true villain in Rwanda's genocide, Theoneste Bagosora was it. Bagosora, a senior Rwandan army official at the time of the 1994 slaughter, allegedly drew up lists of those marked for death two years before the killing began. He organized militia training and made sure recruits were armed, sometimes without his superiors' knowledge. Once the genocide started, Bagosora was just down the road — and fully aware of what was happening — as 10 Belgian peacekeepers were seized and killed.

So it was a moment of triumph this week for the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), the U.N. court in Arusha, Tanzania, set up to bring the perpetrators of the genocide to justice. Bagosora, the senior Defense Ministry official of Rwanda who allegedly put the killing in motion in those first, crucial days of April 1994, was convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity, and sentenced to life imprisonment. No country has agreed to incarcerate him but many of the ICTR's convicts are now being held in Mali. (See the Top 10 Underreported Stories.)

Bagosora was convicted with two other military officers (another man was acquitted), and their trial, known as "Military I," was massive. It began in 2002, and eventually heard 242 witnesses over 408 court days, with tens of thousands of pages of documents and 300 written decisions. It was to be the great symbol of the tribunal's power to bring justice for the 800,000 victims of the genocide. Prosecutors had said it was one of the most important cases since the term "genocide" was legally defined in 1948. It is the kind of conviction that could go a long way toward easing some of the criticism of the court, which, since its first day on January 9, 1997, has spent more than $1 billion to convict just 36 people and acquit six.

Another 40 or so are either in custody or remain fugitives. The court has been plagued by delays — from lawyers who died to procedural stalling to the difficulty of flying in witnesses or providing them with proper protection back home. "This case in some ways shows that these international justice tribunals can make a difference and can actually change the course of history to break the cycle of violence because Bagosora and the other two really were the key characters who were pulling the strings at the time the genocide started," says Binaifer Nowrojee, director of the Open Society Initiative for East Africa, who was an expert witness in the trial.

Among its successes was the fact that the Rwanda court got judicial recognition of rape as a weapon of genocide — though the court has taken testimony from only a handful of witnesses in the face of hundreds of thousands of incidents of sexual violence. That classification, nevertheless, has been passed on to the International Criminal Court, the larger judicial body that is taking on cases of war crimes and genocide world wide.

But there is much work left to be done, and the ICTR is not being given a great deal of time to do it. The court is now under pressure from the U.N. General Assembly and the Security Council to wrap up its work on the Rwanda genocide soon, by reducing its staff numbers and finishing cases quickly. The court now believes it can have all its trial work finished in 2009, a year later than planned, and has recently asked the General Assembly for more money to push it through to the end of 2009, apart from its 2008-2009 operating budget of more than $230 million. "It will be very wrong for anyone to compare how much it costs to the value that ICTR has achieved," says court spokesman Roland Amoussouga. "Have you seen how the message coming out of the Bagosora case was received by whole international community? That value has no price."

The ICTR had originally been intended to try all those guilty of genocide or violations of humanitarian law. But it was slow to get moving — three years passed before the first trial started. Finally, when it became clear in 2003 that the court was proceeding too slowly, prosecutors shifted their focus to high-level cases and transferred the rest to national courts or Rwanda's gacaca system, styled after South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, in which alleged perpetrators get lighter sentences if they acknowledge their guilt before an audience of victims or their families.

The ICTR has also come under criticism for not prosecuting anyone from President Paul Kagame's Rwandan Patriotic Front, the rebel group that various human rights organizations say was also guilty of genocide. But it has taken that line partly because Kagame himself has obstructed the court in the past, at one point barring witnesses from coming to testify when the court announced its intention to pursue Kagame's allies.

Yet with Bagosora's conviction, human rights campaigners are in a forgiving mood. As far as it can be said about anyone, Bagosora was evil. In his book Shake Hands With The Devil, Romeo Dallaire, the head of the U.N. peacekeeping mission when the Rwandan genocide began, described meeting Bagosora after the worst of the killing ended. "With menace in every line of his face, he promised that if he ever saw me again he would kill me," wrote Dallaire, who would later testify for the prosecution in Bagosora's case. The fact that such a man will spend the rest of his life behind bars may just outweigh all the court's failures.

"We all have been gritting our teeth for prolonged periods of time but never giving up because we've known how important these outcomes are," says Peter Rosenblum, a professor of human rights law at Columbia University who had just returned from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where people were ecstatic about the conviction. "It is true that for everything else goes wrong, when something like this happens, it sends a message through all Africa and it gives inspiration."