Global Policy Forum

Rwandan Nuns Await


By Stephen Castle

The Independent
June 8, 2001

Two nuns accused of taking part in one of the most savage massacres of Rwanda's 1994 genocide were awaiting the verdict of a Belgian jury in a landmark legal case yesterday. The Catholic nuns, who have sat impassively through the two-month trial, are among four people charged with helping Hutu extremists butcher and burn some 7,000 Tutsi refugees.

Sister Gertrude, 42, mother superior of the Benedictine convent at Sovu, is accused of ejecting refugees from the building, knowing they were being sent to their deaths. She is being tried under her full civil name of Consolata Mukangango. Sister Maria Kisito, 36, being tried as Julienne Mukabutera, is charged with causing deaths by supplying petrol to a mob that burnt the garage at the convent's health clinic in which some 600 Tutsis were sheltering.

The trial is the first such case to be heard by a civilian jury rather than a judge. In 1993 Belgium passed a law that allows people to be prosecuted for war crimes even if the offences of which they are accused are committed abroad.

The prosecution has called on jurors to help to seek justice for 800,000 victims who lie in Rwanda's mass graves. After the genocide, the nuns moved to Belgium, which is Rwanda's former colonial power. "These nuns did not slide into the genocide, they embraced it," said Frederic Clement de Clety, a lawyer representing a Rwandan widows' association.

Defence lawyers have argued that the evidence has been contradictory, unconvincing and even prompted by a conspiracy. And Sister Gertrude has claimed that she feared for her life and for the other nuns at Sovu. Also facing charges, are Alphonse Higaniro, 52, a former minister who ran a match factory and is accused of inciting his workers to murder, and a university professor, Vincent Ntezimana, 39, who is accused of providing the intellectual justification for the genocide and murdering seven Tutsis.

All four have pleaded innocent. They could face sentences of life in prison if found guilty.

Yesterday the jury was answering a complex questionnaire, which posed 55 separate questions on the guilt or complicity of the four accused.

• Rwandan troops drove Hutu insurgents back into the Congo yesterday after killing 150 of the rebels in the country's bloodiest fighting in years. Bodies littered the hillsides after the battle, which raged throughout Wednesday when more than 1,000 Hutu rebels attacked north-western Rwanda.

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