ARUSHA, Tanzania (AFP) — A UN war crimes court increased a Roman Catholic priest's sentence to life imprisonment Wednesday after upholding his conviction for his part in the genocide of 800,000 fellow Rwandans.
In April 1994, when pro-government Hutu militiamen were rounding up ethnic Tutsis for slaughter across Rwanda, some 1,500 of Father Athanase Seromba's parishioners took shelter in his church in the western town of Nyange.
Rather than seeking to protect his flock, the ethnic Huti priest had the church levelled by bulldozers and ordered extremist gunmen to shoot any Tutsis who tried to flee the carnage, the court heard. There were no survivors.
"Seromba knew that approximately 1,500 refugees were in the church," judge Mohamed Shahabuddeen said, handing down his ruling on the appeal.
"He committed genocide as well as extermination as a crime against humanity by virtue of his role in the destruction of the church. The acts of Seromba are sufficient to constitute direct participation in the crimes."
Seromba was the first priest charged with genocide by the International Criminal Court for Rwanda, which was set up to prosecute the authors of the 1994 massacre. He was convicted in 2006 and sentenced to 15 years in jail.
Both the prosecution and the defence appealed, the former claiming that the sentence was too light, while Seromba continued to protest his innocence.
On Wednesday, the court found in favour of the prosecution, rejecting the defendant's appeal and increasing his sentence.
"The appeals chamber quashes unanimously the sentence of 15 years imprisonment and enters, by majority, the sentence of imprisonment for the remainder of his life," he said.
In the aftermath of the genocide, Seromba sought refuge in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo -- then known as Zaire -- then moved on to Kenya before heading to Italy, where the Catholic Church allowed him to continue working.
Italy refused to execute an ICTR arrest warrant but, faced with mounting international pressure, the priest gave himself up on 2002, saying that he would face trial "for the truth to be known".
Seromba was the first Catholic priest to face genocide charges before the ICTR, although several other clergymen and women have been tried by the Rwandan tribunal and foreign courts in connection with the genocide.
In December, another cleric, Adventist pastor Elizaphan Ntakirutimana, became the court's first convict to be released after serving his time.
Formed in late 1994, the Arusha-based tribunal has so far convicted 30 suspects and acquitted five.
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