Ignoring international appeals for mercy, including a clemency plea from Pope John Paul II, the Rwandan government on Friday executed 22 people convicted of crimes in connection with the 1994 genocide that killed more than 800,000 people in this country.
While 18 of the 22 were publicly put to death in four provincial towns where major massacres were committed, the condemned in Kigali faced a firing squad at a red clay soccer field.
Top officials from the government were noticeably absent in Kigali, but thousands jostled to watch the three men and one woman meet their fate.
Reportedly among the Kigali condemned were Silas Munyagishali, a former assistant prosecutor in the capital, and Froduald Karamira, former vice president of the Hutu extremist Republican Democratic Movement.
Karamira, whom some dubbed a "star" in the Rwandan horror, had been convicted of playing a leading role in planning and carrying out the genocide.
He is said to have controlled two of Rwanda's major radio stations during that time, including the notorious Radio Mille Collines, which broadcast hate propaganda against ethnic Tutsis, directing rival Hutus to "finish the work." He also oversaw the vast network of roadblocks at which Hutu militiamen shot or hacked to death thousands of Tutsis in and around Kigali.
The four, dressed in pink prison garb with ropes around their chests, legs and feet, were lashed to 9-foot stakes about 6 feet apart. White bands, marked with black targets, were tied to their torsos. Black sacks then were draped over their heads.
There were no speeches, prayers or last rites.
After a short pause, four blue-uniformed and masked police officers toting AK-47 rifles ran from a Toyota truck. They fired from a distance of a few feet, hitting the first two prisoners three times and the other two four times. A fifth officer shot each of the convicts twice in the head with a pistol at point-blank range.
The crowd erupted in wild cheers and applause.
"God is great!" shouted Andrew, 45, an onlooker who declared that even death by firing squad was too dignified for these criminals.
While members of the international community condemned the executions, warning that they will only add to the overpowering hatred and bloodshed that has riven this nation, many genocide survivors saw the firing squads as a commitment by the Rwandan government to give the wicked their belated due.
"I'm happy. The executions have given me hope that justice is working now," said Jimmy Eayawira, 25, a university student whose father and other family members and friends were killed in the genocide. "This will be evidence that, from now on, people who want to kill, Hutu or Tutsi, will be punished."
In 1994, Tutsis and moderate Hutus were the primary victims of Hutu extremists in a three-month orgy of killing. Hutu insurgents have continued to terrorize the population.
State-run Rwanda Radio reported that similar public executions were conducted Friday in Gikongoro, Nyamata, Murambi and Cyasemakamba.
When Rwandan officials announced Wednesday that they would put almost two dozen criminals to death, a global outpouring of displeasure ensued.
Some international observers raised concern about the fairness and propriety of the legal proceedings under which the accused had been convicted, especially since Rwandan courts have been plagued by disorder and a lack of lawyers, judges and money.
Amnesty International pleaded for this nation to forgo the death penalty. The United States asked Rwanda for a stay of the executions. U.N. Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson urged the Rwandan government to reconsider. Pope John Paul II sent a letter to President Pasteur Bizimungu appealing for clemency.
But Rwandan officials, defending their judicial system, insisted that the defendants' heinous conduct merited the ultimate punishment, which they added was required to deter others from ever considering similar crimes against so many.
"Genocide was committed in broad daylight, [and] these people were planners and leaders," said Kato Ninyetegeka, the director of political affairs in the office of the Rwandan president who himself counts at least 15 family members who perished in the slaughter. "It's going to be a lesson to the masses, because some were forced to commit genocide. . . . Genocide survivors will feel the law is taking its course."
Josue Kayijaho, who chairs an umbrella group of local human rights organizations and serves on the board of a genocide survivor group, concurred: "This can help people to see that the government is serious about applying punishment."
Rwandan officials also replied to criticism of the executions by assailing Western nations for their failure to intervene early or to otherwise halt the genocide.
On his recent trip to Rwanda, part of a six-nation Africa tour, President Clinton expressed regret that the United States in particular and the West in general had not moved more swiftly to prevent the deaths of hundreds of thousands.
On Friday, all the public executions were conducted under tight security to prevent the filming or photographing of the events, in part, sources said, to avert international criticism that these were staged spectacles.
They were extremely moving to some. Clutching a packet of tissues, Joyce Kayitesi said she was "very happy" to see Karamira die because he was responsible for ordering the massacre of six of her close relatives and scores of others in her extended family.
Besides Karamira and the assistant prosecutor, news services identified the other two shot in Kigali as Virginie Mukankusi and Elie Nshimiyumuremyi, a Burundian who was a ringleader of Hutu killing squads here.
Though hundreds of Kigali residents chose to forgo the event and went about their work or other regular business, few were willing to say openly that they missed the execution because they opposed it.
Christine Mukarumongi, 19, stood patiently in a line outside Kigali's central prison, waiting to bring a meal of sweet potatoes, rice and beans to her father. He has been jailed for a year, accused of killing a neighbor found buried in the Mukarumongi family yard.
She was pensive but hopeful that her father would escape the death penalty because she recalled him being absent from the family homestead during the time of the alleged crime.
"Those who planned the genocide should be punished but not killed," asserted Mukarumongi, whose mother and two brothers were massacred by unknown assailants in the genocide. She suggested "jail for life" would be just because "capital punishment is not a decision of God."
While the international community and Rwandan authorities concurred that Friday's death penalty cases carried great symbolism--for good and bad--they hardly dented the giant legal problems that will haunt society here for at least a generation.
More than 125,000 people, many of whom may end up spending the rest of their lives behind bars, still cram Rwanda's jails, charged with genocide-related crimes. Even with what some outsiders have termed crude, unduly swift hearings, only 330 or so cases have been adjudicated, with 112 death sentences imposed by December 1997, the first year in which Rwanda conducted such trials.
The United Nations is also conducting its own genocide proceedings in Arusha, Tanzania. But the pace there is even more glacial: Not a single case has been brought to conclusion.
The maximum penalty that can be imposed by the U.N. is life imprisonment, served in humane conditions.