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Rwandan Genocide Kingpin Dies in Mali Jail

Théoneste Bagosora Sentence a Lesson in Accountability

Théoneste Bagosora reacts as he sits in the court at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, in Arusha, Tanzania on December 18, 2008. © 2008 ICTR/AP Images

Late last month, Malian officials announced that a former Rwandan army colonel convicted of masterminding the slaughter of at least half a million people during the 1994 genocide had died. Théoneste Bagosora, who was 80, was serving a 35-year sentence after being found guilty of crimes against humanity by the then International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR).

His death on September 25 follows news of the arrest in France of Félicien Kabuga, one of the Rwandan genocide’s alleged masterminds, in 2020 and the announcement that the remains of another – Augustin Bizimana, the minister of defense at the time of the killings – had been found in a grave in Republic of Congo.

Bagosora was a major decision-maker in Rwandan military circles at the start of the genocide. He was linked to the akazu, or “little house,” a special circle within the larger network of individuals that worked to support then-President of Rwanda, Juvénal Habyarimana, and propagated the supremacy of Hutu over the minority Tutsi. On April 6, 1994, Habyarimana died when a plane carrying him and Burundian President Cyprien Ntaryamira was shot down.

The crash triggered the start of three months of unprecedented ethnic killings across Rwanda. Between April and July 1994, Hutu political and military extremists like Bagosora orchestrated the murder of approximately three quarters of Rwanda’s Tutsi population. Many Hutu who attempted to hide or defend Tutsi and those who opposed the genocide were also killed.

Human Rights Watch documented the 1994 genocide and the crimes associated with it in detail. Prior to her death, Alison Des Forges, senior adviser to the Human Rights Watch Africa division for almost two decades and one of the world’s foremost experts on Rwanda, published an authoritative account of the genocide, “Leave None to Tell the Story.” The title refers to what Bagosora and other Hutu leaders told their men before the killings.

Des Forges provided expert testimony at Bagosora’s trial before the ICTR, which laid bare the extent to which the state planned and executed the genocide and Bagosora’s role in it.

Ultimately, the case reminds us that while criminal accountability for the gravest crimes happens far too seldom, it can be achieved. Bagosora’s death while serving his sentence sends a strong message: commit the worst crimes and you may live your final days behind bars.

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