A U.N. tribunal sentenced Jean Kambanda, Rwanda's former prime minister, to life in prison Friday for his role in the 1994 massacre of more than 800,000 Rwandans, most of them ethnic Tutsis.
A panel of three judges at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, headquartered in this northern Tanzanian town, concluded that the shocking and abominable nature of Kambanda's crimes warranted the maximum sentence the court could impose.
"The chamber is of the opinion that genocide represents the crime of crimes, which must be taken into account when delivering the sentence," presiding Judge Laity Kama told Kambanda.
The chief judge said that although Kambanda had cooperated with the prosecution--and voluntarily confessed last May to six genocide-related crimes and crimes against humanity--the gravity of his actions "negated widely the mitigating circumstances."
The sentence given to Kambanda, the highest-ranking former political leader in the tribunal's custody, is significant because it will probably influence the pleas of the other 31 high-profile, though lower-ranking, defendants in custody, observers said.
"The people it will affect are those who are sitting on the fence and contemplating what to plead," said one tribunal source, noting that some defendants might continue to declare their innocence for fear of getting a life sentence while others might follow Kambanda's lead and acknowledge their guilt.
In Washington, a Clinton administration official reacted to the sentencing with approval.
"We welcome the whole adjudication," the official said. "The court was limited to life as a maximum sentence, so the sentence indicates the court was doing its job. We welcome the fact that the process is working and the court was able to proceed and administer justice. This is a message to the perpetrators of genocide that they will receive justice."
Kambanda, 42, was the first person to accept responsibility for genocide before an international court. He also acknowledged that extermination of Tutsis was a policy of his government--an admission that observers said helped quash the defense of Hutu extremists that the slaughter resulted from war and was not premeditated. Kama said Kambanda's sentence will "serve as a message to the entire international community, and particularly to those who will be tempted to commit such crimes in the future."
Michael Inglis, Kambanda's attorney, said his client was "shocked" at receiving the court's maximum punishment and would probably appeal the sentence.
Inglis had sought a sentence of two years for Kambanda and said he thought his client might receive between 10 and 15 years. The defense lawyer had argued that the former prime minister had been forced to take office and was merely a puppet who was trapped and acted under duress with diminished responsibility.
The onetime banker turned politician, who is married with two children, had been a member of an extremist political party and was appointed prime minister of an interim government in Rwanda on April 8, 1994, two days after the mysterious downing of a plane carrying then-President Juvenal Habyarimana and Burundian President Cyprian Ntayamira.
The death of both leaders triggered three months of carnage.
Rwandan government officials, who have criticized the tribunal for slowness and ineptitude, and many of their fellow civilians who attended the hearing said they were satisfied with the sentence.
"The crime of genocide that was committed in Rwanda in 1994 is now recognized in its real state by the international community," said Joy Mukanyange, Rwanda's ambassador to Tanzania and the only Rwandan official to attend the sentencing. "Justice has been done. That's what the people of Rwanda have been looking for. We are not looking for revenge."
Rwandan courts--in proceedings criticized by many foreign lawyers as being unjust--have tried at least 330 people for involvement in the genocide; 116 have been sentenced to death, and 22 others have already been executed. More than 125,000 people are still in prison awaiting trial.
Dressed in a dark gray suit, with a gray pin-striped shirt and a multicolored tie, Kambanda sat impassively during the sentencing. In a now-public agreement with the prosecution, Kambanda told how as prime minister he made radio announcements inciting fellow Hutus to abuse, hurt or kill Tutsis and Hutu moderates. And witnesses said he congratulated those who followed his orders.
Kambanda also acknowledged that he ordered roads to be blocked with the intention of trapping fleeing Tutsi refugees. He admitted ensuring that weapons and ammunition were distributed to certain political parties, extremist militias and regular civilians to carry out the slaughter.
He admitted that his frequent visits to provinces across the country meant that he knew firsthand that civilians were being butchered but did nothing to stop that.
Kambanda's acts were premeditated, he abused his authority and he failed in his duty as prime minister to protect the population, Kama told the court.
"There was no explanation for the voluntary participation in the genocide, nor has he expressed contrition, regret or sympathy for the victims in Rwanda, even when given the opportunity to do so by the chamber," the judge said, noting that an admission of guilt does not necessarily amount to remorse. However, in exchange for his confession and 90 hours of recorded testimony, deputy prosecutor Bernard Muna said that Kambanda's family will be protected and that now the former premier can "sleep, for the time being, calmly."
Times staff writer Norman Kempster in Washington contributed to this report.