A U.N. court trying leaders of Rwanda’s 1994 genocide jailed a former Catholic priest for 15 years on Wednesday for ordering bulldozers to level a church, sparking the death of 2,000 people hiding inside.
The first Catholic priest to face judgement at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) in Arusha, Tanzania, Father Athanase Seromba had denied the charges, including genocide and crimes against humanity.
“He has been jailed for 15 years,” ICTR spokesman Everard O’Donnell told Reuters by telephone from the court.
The tribunal heard Seromba ordered the destruction of a church where more than 2,000 minority ethnic Tutsis were hiding from machete-wielding gangs of ethnic Hutu militia.
“It was further established beyond reasonable doubt that Seromba spoke to the driver of the bulldozer, encouraging and identifying when to start demolition of the parish and which parts of the parish were the weakest,” ICTR said in a statement.
After the roof of the building collapsed, witnesses said militiamen swarmed over the rubble to finish off the survivors.
ICTR said that at the time of his indictment Seromba worked, allegedly under a disguise, as a priest in two parishes in Florence, Italy.
Seromba was the first Catholic priest to face charges at the tribunal in connection with the genocide, in which 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were butchered by Hutu militants in 100 days. But he is not the first clergyman.
Last week, Elizaphan Ntakirutimana, a former Seventh Day Adventist pastor, was released after completing a 10-year sentence for his role in the killings.
Nuns also implicated
Although priests were among those murdered, survivors have reported numerous incidents in which Catholic priests and nuns took part in killings, encouraged their congregations to kill or colluded with gangs of killers in rounding up victims.
Some of the ugliest massacres were committed in churches, missions and parishes where Tutsis who took shelter were hunted down by Hutu militias. At least two other Catholic priests are facing charges in Arusha.
Most of Rwanda’s eight million people are Christians and among those, the largest single denomination is Roman Catholic.
Seromba is the 27th person to be convicted by the ICTR, which is prosecuting the perpetrators of the genocide. It has acquitted five suspects since its first trial in 1997.
The court credited Seromba, who was arrested after surrendering in 2002, for time served since then.