'Genocide' priest faces death penalty

September 13, 2005

KIGALI, Rwanda: A Belgian missionary has been charged with inciting and helping plan the 1994 Rwandan genocide, in which more than half a million people were killed.

A Rwandan gacaca, or community court, initially heard the charges but referred the case of Guy Theunis, 60, to a conventional court after classifying him as a category-one genocide suspect - reserved for alleged leaders of the 100-day slaughter.

Father Theunis now faces a possible death penalty.

The Missionaries of Africa priest insisted that information supplied to back the charges was false.

Father Theunis, who worked as the editor of Rwandan magazine Le Dialogue, denied allegations that he incited the genocide by reproducing articles from the Kangura, a newspaper that promoted the killing of members of the Tutsi ethnic minority.

A UN tribunal has convicted the editor of that newspaper, Hassan Ngeze, and sentenced him to life in prison.

"I am astonished to hear all these allegations levelled against me. I sometimes wrote articles to press for human rights. I never republished articles from Kangura, but just translated as part of a press review," Father Theunis told the court in Rwanda's national language, Kinyarwanda.

Father Theunis worked in Rwanda from 1970 to 1994, when Tutsis and political moderates from the Hutu majority were slaughtered in a 100-day genocide orchestrated by the extremist Hutu government of the day.

The missionary, who has been living in South Africa since 1994, was arrested on September 6 while travelling through Rwanda's capital, Kigali, from neighbouring Congo.

Some genocide survivors were harsh in their accusations against Father Theunis, who was clad in the pink shirt and shorts worn by prisoners in Rwanda.

"Instead of preaching the gospel, the missionary was preaching divisions" between Tutsis and Hutus, witness Jean Damascene Bizimana told the court.

"I personally met with the missionary and he told me that if the Tutsis don't stop the war (that raged before the genocide was unleashed), many more of them are likely to die."

Father Theunis was the first foreigner to appear before the community courts, which were set up to investigate and try more than 760,000 people suspected of involvement in the 1994 genocide. People accused of leading the genocide are tried in the conventional justice system, where they face stiffer penalties. Lesser charges would call for a trial at a gacaca court.