ARUSHA, Dec 18 – A church choir boy as a youth, Theoneste Bagosora rose to become a key officer in the Rwandan military before being accused of masterminding the 1994 genocide which claimed at least 800,000 lives.
Colonel Bagosora, 67, and two fellow senior army officers were found guilty Thursday by a UN-backed court of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. They were sentenced to life, while a third co-defendant was acquitted.
Their case was one of most important yet to become before the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, which was set up by the United Nations late in 1994 and began work in 1997 to try the key suspects in the genocide.
Hutu government troops and militias in 1994 began the organised massacres of minority Tutsis and moderate Hutus the day after President Juvenal Habyarimana’s plane was shot down in a missile attack.
It is still not clear who carried out that attack.
Witnesses told the court that Bagosora had the means of communication "to get things going", including several telephone lines and radio links with the armed forces.
Bagosora, who was born August 16, 1941, hails from a small village in the northern region of Rwanda known as Gisenyi. His family were Christians and in his youth he sang as a choir boy in his local parish church.
He studied at a small Catholic school from 1956, before starting military school in the capital of Kigali six years later.
Bagosora earned his military stripes fairly quickly, rapidly rising through the ranks to eventually become the chief of staff for the defence minister.
In 1964, he became a deputy lieutenant and undertook his first military operations two years later. The young officer successfully thwarted an attack by exiled Rwandan Tutsis, who had been sheltering in neighbouring Burundi.
One year after this baptism of fire, Bagosora’s eldest daughter was born. Her godmother was married to Juvenal Habyarimana, who later became president of Rwanda.
Habyarimana would benefit from his close relationship with Bagosora when he launched a coup in 1973 against the democratically elected president of the time, Gregoire Kayibanda. Bagosora’s regiment took an active role in the ouster.
After training at a French military academy in 1981, Bagosora held a number of senior positions with the Rwandan ministry of defence and army.
When a group of Tutsi rebels, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (FPR) invaded Rwanda from Uganda on October 1, 1990, Colonel Bagosora was not involved in the fighting. His battles would be on the diplomatic front as he led peace negotiations with the rebels.
Those talks took place in 1993 in the Tanzanian city of Arusha, where years later he was to stand trial.
Bagosora was constantly at loggerheads with the head of the delegation, Foreign Affairs Minister Boniface Ngurinzira, accusing the minister of having granted too many concessions to the rebels. Ngurinzira was assassinated in April 1994, the month the killings started, by a group of army officers.
ICTR prosecutors alleged that upon his return Bagosora had told his subordinates to "prepare for apocalypse", referring to the 1994 genocide in which some 800,000 people died over 100 days.
The former colonel, who refuses to acknowledge that the killings constitute genocide, denies ever having used those words.
He fled Rwanda in July 1994 after FPR rebels advanced on Kigali. He was arrested in Cameroon in March 1996.