Laurent Bucyibaruta is the highest-ranking Rwandan to have faced trial in France over the 1994 massacres in which an estimated 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus died in 100 days of mass killings.
At the heart of the case against the 78-year-old were several “security” meetings, either ordered or attended by Bucyibaruta, which prosecutors had argued were actually planning sessions for the killings.
Specifically, the former prefect of the southern province of Gikongoro was accused of having persuaded thousands of people to take refuge in the Murambi Technical School, by promising them food, water and protection.
Days later, in the early hours of April 21, tens of thousands of Tutsis were executed there in one of the genocide’s bloodiest episodes.
The court also examined Bucyibaruta’s responsibility in the massacre of around 90 Tutsi pupils at the Marie Merci school in Kibeho on May 7, 1994 and in the execution of Tutsi prisoners — including three priests — in Gikongoro prison.
During his trial, Bucyibaruta denied any involvement in the killings.
“I was never on the side of the killers,” Bucyibaruta told the court as his trial ended on Tuesday.
In an apparent message to genocide survivors, he said: “I want to tell them that the thought of leaving them to the killers never entered my mind.”
He added: “Did I lack courage? Could I have saved them? Those questions, those regrets even, have been haunting me for over 28 years.”
His lawyers had called for the court to take “a courageous decision” and acquit him.
The trial involved more than 100 witness statements, including some from survivors from Rwanda, either in person or by video conference.
Bucyibaruta, who has been in France since 1997, has myriad health problems and was allowed to remain under house arrest during trial to receive treatments.
France has long been under pressure from activists to act against suspected Rwandan perpetrators who took refuge on French soil afterwards.
The French government at the time of the genocide had been a long-standing backer of the Hutu regime in power, which has caused decades of tensions between the countries since.
A separate French probe into the act that sparked the genocide — the shooting down of Hutu president Juvenal Habyarimana’s plane — was closed earlier this year.
Investigators had suspected that rebels under the command of Tutsi rebel leader Paul Kagame — now president of Rwanda — was responsible for attacking the aircraft as it landed in the Rwandan capital.
Four people in three cases have already been convicted in French courts over the genocide: a former hotel driver was handed a 14-year sentence, an army officer was jailed for 25 years and two mayors were given life sentences.
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