ARUSHA, Tanzania (AFP) - The UN war crimes court for Rwanda has convicted a Roman Catholic priest, the first it has tried, of genocide and sentenced him to 15 years for his role in the 1994 mass killings.
The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) found Father Athanase Seromba guilty on two of four counts he faced in connection with the genocide in which some 800,000 people, mainly minority Tutsis and moderate Hutus, died.
"The chamber finds you guilty of genocide and extermination and sentences you to a single term of 15 years in prison," chief judge Andresia Vaz said, reading the verdict of the three-member panel on Wednesday.
He was acquitted on lesser counts of complicity to commit genocide and incitement to commit genocide, the court said.
Seromba, a 43-year-old Hutu, had pleaded not guilty to the charges that stemmed notably from the destruction of his parish church in the western town of Nyange where some 2,000 Tutsi faithful had sought shelter in April 1994.
He was accused of ordering the church levelled by bulldozers, which led to the deaths of all inside, and instructing radical Hutu militia to shoot Tutsis who tried to flee the carnage.
Seromba had claimed he was a simple parish priest and powerless to stop the killing but prosecutors had called for the priest to be given the court`s maximum sentence of life in prison.
The judges found that while Seromba had not personally ordered the church destroyed, he had approved a decision by local authorities to do so.
"By his proven gestures, he contributed in a substantial way," the judges said.
The defense had complained that Seromba was prosecuted only because he is a priest and had noted he voluntarily surrendered in 2002 after fighting a lengthy battle against extradition, so that justice could be done.
The trial, which began in September 2004, has been dogged by delays and controversy, including an unsuccessful defense challenge to remove the judges hearing the case for alleged bias in May.
Seromba was the first Catholic priest to face genocide charges before the ICTR, although the trial of a second, Father Emmanuel Rukundo, a former army chaplain in northern Rwanda, began in mid-November.
A third has yet to begin.
Several other clergymen and women have been tried by the ICTR and in Rwandan and foreign courts in connection with the genocide.
Last week, another cleric, Adventist pastor Elizaphan Ntakirutimana, who was convicted by the ICTR and sentenced to 10 years in prison, became the first court`s first convict to be released after serving his time.
Formed in late 1994, the Arusha-based tribunal has so far has tried 32 people, including Seromba, accused of orchestrating or carrying out the genocide, convicting 27 and acquitting five.