Rwanda Pastor and Son, a Doctor, Convicted of Genocide

The New York Times, Feb. 20, 2003

Protestant clergyman and his son, a physician, were convicted yesterday of genocide and sentenced to prison by the United Nations tribunal dealing with the Rwandan killing frenzy of 1994, in which members of Hutu gangs killed an estimated 800,000 minority Tutsi and moderate Hutu over three months.

The Rev. Elizaphan Ntakirutimana, 78, the former head of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in western Rwanda, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for aiding and abetting genocide. His son, Dr. Gérard Ntakirutimana, 45, who worked at the church’s hospital, received a total sentence of 25 years for the same charges and for shooting two people to death.

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With the verdict, Mr. Ntakirutimana became the first clergyman to be convicted of genocide by an international tribunal.

The lengthy trial, which began in September 2001, has drawn new attention to the role of the Christian churches during the massacre. Three Roman Catholic priests are being held on similar charges at the tribunal’s jail in Arusha, Tanzania, the seat of the United Nations tribunal on Rwanda. A fifth, an Anglican bishop, died while in detention.

During the ethnic violence, many Rwandan clergymen and church workers took sides, as did much of the country. Some 300 clergymen and nuns were slain themselves because they were Tutsi or were helping the Tutsi. But many other men and women of the church, most of them Hutu, encouraged or actively collaborated with the killers.

Mr. Ntakirutimana was one of the collaborators, the court ruled.

The three judges, led by Eric Mose of Norway, found that the pastor and his son had led attackers to the Mugonero Adventist church and hospital complex in Kibuye, where hundreds of unarmed Tutsi families, including Adventist ministers and their relatives, had sought refuge from the violence. The judges found that father and son also joined and guided vehicle convoys carrying attackers to nearby towns.

The judges, who dismissed other charges against the two, said that during the attacks, the physician had shot one man at close range in the hospital courtyard and another who had taken refuge at a school.

“As a medical doctor, he took lives instead of saving them,” Judge Mose said in the court’s summary.

Ramsey Clark, the former United States attorney general, who was defense counsel for the elder Mr. Ntakirutimana, called the verdict “a tragic miscarriage of justice.” He said both men would appeal.

The clergyman’s case first gained attention in March 2000, when he became the first person handed over by the United States to an international tribunal.

First arrested in Laredo, Tex., in 1996, he was released the next year after a Texas court dropped the extradition warrant against him. He was rearrested in 1998 after the State Department succeeded in getting that decision reversed. He lost his appeals to avoid extradition when the United States Supreme Court declined to hear the case.

The time he has already been in custody, nearly six years, will be deducted from his sentence, a tribunal spokesman said.

The same will apply to his son, who was arrested in 1996 in Ivory Coast. Subject to appeal, the two may serve their sentences in Benin, Mali or Swaziland, which have agreements with the United Nations tribunal.

Mr. Ntakirutimana is not the first member of the clergy to be held on genocide charges. Church workers, including two Catholic priests, have been convicted by local courts in Rwanda. In Belgium, two Rwandan nuns received long prison sentences for crimes against humanity for collaborating with Hutu militias.

But this case became known above all because of the astonishing letter that six Tutsi pastors wrote to him while they were at the church compound caring for refugees.

The letter begged him for help, saying, “We wish to inform you that we have heard that tomorrow we will be killed with our families.”

The group was indeed killed. During the trial, the letter was used as a prosecution exhibit. A witness, the son of one of the six clergymen, said the letter had received a cold reply saying nothing could be done.

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