ARUSHA, Tanzania - A UN-backed tribunal on Thursday sentenced the man accused of having masterminded Rwanda's 1994 genocide to life in prison for his part in the massacres that killed some 800,000 people.
Theoneste Bagosora was convicted "of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes," said judge Erik Mose at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR).
Immediately after the verdict, Bagosora's French lawyer Raphael Constant said his client would appeal against his conviction, which he described as "a disappointment."
Bagosora, 67, a church choir boy in his youth who rose to become a key officer in the Rwandan military, was tried along with three other defendants.
Two of them, also ex-military officers, were likewise sentenced to life, while the third was acquitted.
The court also acquitted all three of conspiring to commit genocide.
"I notice that the conspiracy to commit genocide charge was not upheld," said Constant. "This is what is important. Not considering conspiracy is to put to doubt Rwanda's history."
Prosecutors had sought a life sentence for Bagosora, who had pleaded not guilty and argued that he "never killed anybody."
The genocide saw extremists from Rwanda's Hutu majority slaughter minority Tutsis and moderate Hutus over 100 days. The massacres shocked the world and led to accusations that Western nations watched them unfold without moving to stop them.
The slaughter is thought to have been triggered by the downing of a plane carrying Rwanda's then president Juvenal Habyarimana, a Hutu, and his Burundian counterpart on April 6, 1994.
The tribunal found Bagosora responsible for the assassination of Habyarimana's moderate Hutu prime minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana, as well as the killing of 10 Belgian peacekeepers and several politicians.
It also ruled that Bagosora, the chief of staff of Rwanda's defence ministry when the genocide began, was behind the massacre of Tutsis at road blocks in the capital Kigali and in his home region of Gisenyi in the north.
Bagosora was arrested in Cameroon in 1996 and his trial began in 2002.
The indictment accused him and his co-defendants of having conspired to "work out a plan with the intent to exterminate the civilian Tutsi population and eliminate members of the opposition, so that they could remain in power."
ICTR chief prosecutor Hassan Bubacar Jallow charged that the four were involved in a conspiracy that began in late 1990 when hundreds of Tutsis were arrested after an attack by a Tutsi-dominated rebel group.
The conspiracy became more explicit the following year when the accused, part of a 10-member panel formed by Habyarimana, worked towards the "definition of the enemy", Jarrow argued.
The panel met to explore ways of "defeating the enemy militarily, politically and through the media," with the enemy being the Tutsi ethnic group.
Constant had questioned the very basis for the case, arguing that prosecutors failed to prove the killings met the legal definition of genocide.
Bagosora had also denied killing the Belgian peacekeepers to force the withdrawal of a UN peace force in Rwanda and allow the massacres to go ahead.
"I never killed anybody, neither did I give orders to kill. You are the ones who can rehabilitate me back to the society," he said. He argued he was a victim of propaganda from the present Tutsi-dominated Rwandan government.
Lieutenant-Colonel Anatole Nsegiyumva, the former commander of Gisenyi military region, and Major Alloys Ntabakuze, the former commander of a parachute battalion based at Kigali airport were convicted on the same charges.
But the tribunal acquitted a fourth officer, Brigadier Gratien Kabiligi, the former chief of military operations, and ordered his immediate release.