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Vatican silent on Rwandan nuns

BRUSSELS, Belgium -- The Vatican has remained restrained in its comments on the imprisonment of two Rwandan nuns in Belgium for their part in the 1994 genocide.

Benedictine Sister Gertrude, a former Mother Superior at a convent in Rwanda where thousands of Tutsi refugees were slaughtered, was sentenced to 15 years in a Belgian jail.

Sister Maria Kisito, also convicted of war crimes by the Belgian jury earlier on Friday, was sentenced to 12 years.

The Vatican insisted that the Roman Catholic church is not responsible for the misdeeds of its members, the Associated Press said.

Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls added in a statement: "The Holy See cannot but express a certain surprise at seeing the grave responsibility of so many people and groups involved in this tremendous genocide in the heart of Africa heaped on so few people."

Alphonse Higaniro, a 52-year-old businessman, received a 20-year sentence for his part in the genocide in which hundreds of thousands of Tutsis and moderate Hutus were massacred. University professor Vincent Ntezimana, 39, was jailed for 12 years.

The prosecution had sought life sentences for the four defendants in the landmark trial which ended with the guilty verdicts on Friday.

All four had denied the charges.

Ntezimana sobbed and wiped his eyes with a handkerchief as the sentences were imposed. The others showed no emotion.

The trial, which lasted almost eight weeks, was the first in which a jury of 12 ordinary citizens had sat in judgment of war crimes committed in another country.

A 1993 Belgian law gives Belgian courts jurisdiction over violations of the Geneva Convention on war crimes, no matter where they were committed.

Anger outside court

Reed Brody, advocacy director of Human Rights Watch, told the Associated Press: "This is a big step forward for international justice.

"It shows that such a trial can be organised, that you can have a fair trial for events that happen on the other side of the world."

A group of Hutu youths present at the hearing were angry at the guilty verdicts, but relatives of the genocide victims hugged, smiled or sobbed.

Margeritte Lens-Nyirajhninka, who said she had lost all of her family in the Rwandan genocide, told AP: "They have given a human face to people that were killed like animals.

"Today, we can feel our humanity has been recognised."

The charges against the two Hutu nuns -- Consolata Mukangango (Sister Gertrude), 42, and Julienne Mukabutera (Sister Maria Kisito), 36 -- stemmed from attacks by militia mobs in April and May 1994 on their convent at Sovu in which up to 7,000 Tutsis are estimated to have perished.

The two were found to have encouraged and collaborated with the killers, even supplying them with petrol to burn a garage where some 500 people were hiding.

Their lawyers rejected that, saying witnesses had lied and insisted the nuns were innocent bystanders, unable to halt the slaughter.

They were accused of being Hutu extremists who opposed proposals to share power with Tutsi rebels and responded by helping plan and carry out the genocide in their southern region.

More than 500,000 people were killed in 100 days of killing organised by the former Hutu government of Rwanda.

Tutsi-led rebels seized control of the country in July 1994.

The four fled to Belgium -- Rwanda's former colonial ruler -- after the rebels took control and put an end to the killings.

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