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RUSSELS, June 8 -- A highly unusual trial ended today when four Rwandans, two of them Roman Catholic nuns, were sentenced in a Belgian court to lengthy prison terms for war crimes committed during the mass killings in their homeland in 1994.
Vincent Ntezimana, a physics professor, and Alphonse Higaniro, a factory manager and former government minister, were sentenced respectively to 12 and 20 years. The two Benedictine nuns, Sister Gertrude and Sister Maria Kisito were given 15- and 12-year terms.
The guilty verdicts, which were delivered earlier today, were remarkable not only because they were pronounced some 4,000 miles from Rwanda, where some 500,000 people were killed in what was repeatedly described in court as "Africa's Holocaust." The eight-week trial has also made legal history because it was the first time a jury of ordinary citizens was asked to sit in judgment of war crimes in another nation.
Until now, only military or civilian magistrates had decided such cases.
The four Rwandans were found guilty by 12 Belgian men and women, ages 30 to 50, all of them white, among them a cook, a teacher, a hairdresser and a truck driver.
In the view of lawyers and human rights advocates from several countries who have followed the case, the trial represented a major step in the application of international justice that may provide a springboard for future cases in other countries.
"This is a strong signal that international justice can and should become normal justice, which can be heard by a jury of ordinary citizens," said Reed Brody, advocacy director of Human Rights Watch. "In a democracy, international justice need not be something for which you need a military tribunal or a panel of international judges."
The trial took place here because the accused had fled to Belgium, which has kept close ties with Rwanda, its former colony. The case was based on complaints filed by relatives of victims more than six years ago. The legal foundation was laid in 1993, when Belgium adopted new laws to comply with the Geneva Conventions, which codify the laws of war and give signatories the right and obligation to try war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Still, the trial was long stalled because of political pressure, lawyers for the victims said. But last year a new government decided to let the case proceed.
None of the accused were charged with genocide because genocide clauses were not included in the domestic penal code until 1999, five years after the events in Rwanda, the chief prosecutor, Alain Winants, said in an interview.
In court today, however, Mr. Winants warned that the sentences "will show that Belgium is not, and will not become, a sanctuary for perpetrators of genocide."
Today's decisions in Brussels are likely to have an impact in other European countries, including France, Germany and Switzerland, where Rwandans fled after the genocide and where the law allows ordinary courts to try war crimes.
Switzerland is the only European country aside from Belgium that has tried a case involving genocide in Rwanda, but it was handled by a military court. In that case, in 1999, a former Rwandan mayor received a life sentence, which was reduced to 14 years after an appeal.
Most criminal proceedings dealing with the massacres in Rwanda have taken place in Rwanda itself, where the backlog of cases remains enormous: 4,500 people have been tried, but more than 100,000 are waiting in overcrowded jails. The United Nations tribunal for Rwanda in Arusha, Tanzania, long plagued by delays and reported ineptness, has delivered eight convictions of high-ranking former officials and is now trying another nine of its 44 detainees.
Alison des Forges, an American historian and author of "Leave None to Tell the Story: Genocide in Rwanda," said she was impressed by the proceedings in Brussels, where jurors and lawyers had to deal with a vastly different culture and accounts of stunning violence.
"People maybe don't even realize just how revolutionary this jury trial, so far from the events, really is," she said during a pause in the proceedings. Ms. des Forges, who said she had followed several dozen trials in Rwanda, said the trial here, while imperfect, "has been done with a great deal more depth than those in Rwanda."
"Here the investigation has been more extensive and the defense lawyers have been given much more time to express themselves," she said.
The four defendants were not among the presumed architects of the massacres, which were directed by the Hutu-led government against its moderate opponents and the Tutsi minority. But investigators said the two convicted men were major figures in Butare, a town in the south.
Mr. Higaniro, 52, a close friend of former President Juv´nal Habyarimana, was accused of playing an important role in inciting killings and financing and organizing the local militia by siphoning off funds from the partly state-owned factory he ran. He was convicted of homicide in the death of eight people.
Mr. Ntezimana, 40, a former physics professor at Butare University, was found guilty of complicity in the murder of at least six Tutsi, including a colleague, his wife and their children, by betraying them to Hutu killers.
Sister Gertrude, 42, was the former mother superior of the Benedictine convent at Sovu. She and Sister Maria Kisito, 36, were found guilty of collaborating with Hutu militia by expelling Tutsi refugees from the convent grounds. Up to 7,000 refugees were killed in and around convent buildings. At the time, 22 family members of Tutsi nuns were still hidden in the convent, undisturbed by the militia. But Sister Gertrude was accused of summoning the local mayor and the police in order to drive them from the building. All were killed as they left.
Witnesses said the family of one nun paid the police the equivalent of $15 to be shot rather than be hacked to death.
In her defense, Sister Gertrude, a Hutu, argued that she wanted to save the convent and the nuns from retaliation by Hutu gangs. But investigators said she had also told the local militia leader that she feared she might be killed by Tutsi refugees.