KIGALI, Rwanda - A Roman Catholic bishop accused of helping orchestrate the 1994 slaughter of more than a half-million Rwandans was cleared of genocide charges on Thursday and set free.
A Rwandan court ruled the prosecution failed to prove that Augustin Misago had participated in meetings during which Rwanda's former extremist Hutu government formulated plans to kill minority Tutsis.
Misago was accused of being present when members of the former government discussed plans to kill Tutsis at roadblocks and in schools and churches during the 100-day blood bath between April and July 1994.
The 56-year-old bishop was specifically accused of ordering the killings of three Tutsi priests and schoolchildren who had sought his protection - part of the seven genocide charges that the court dismissed one by one in the 90-minute ruling.
''I'm extremely happy that justice and truth have triumphed,'' said Misago, a large crucifix hanging from his neck, as he sagged in his chair, dressed in prison-issued pink shirt and shorts. He had been jailed for more than a year.
''The court orders Misago freed. Misago has won the trial,'' Presiding Judge Jaliere Rutaremara said on behalf of the three-judge panel, setting off an explosion of applause in the packed courtroom.
Misago had denied any responsibility for the massacres, saying he was wrongly arrested on orders of former President Pasteur Bizimungu. If convicted, Misago would have faced a mandatory death sentence.
The highly publicized trial strained Rwanda's relations with the Vatican. Misago is the highest-ranking Roman Catholic cleric among more than 20 nuns and priests accused of participating in the genocide; two priests have already been convicted and sentenced to death.
Reacting to the acquittal, the Vatican envoy to Rwanda, Papal Nuncio Salvatore Pennachio, said: ''It's a day of justice and of truth.''
Cardinal Jozef Tomko, head of the Vatican's missionary division, called the verdict ''a very joyous happening for the church, not only in Africa, but on a universal level,'' according to Fides, the Vatican missionary news agency.
The prosecution said it would appeal the decision within 15 days.
Misago, a Hutu, was bishop of the southern Rwandan diocese of Gikongoro, where tens of thousands died at the hands of Hutu soldiers, militiamen and ordinary civilians.
Many victims were killed in churches, sometimes with the suspected complicity of priests and nuns. The slaughter ended when Tutsi-led rebels drove the government and army from power in July 1994.
''Nobody can accuse Misago of not assisting the victims, because it is up to the authorities, not the church, to ensure the security of the people and the state,'' Rutaremara said in the court's ruling.
During his meetings with Rwandan political and military officials, Misago had always appealed for peace, the court said. His ''good relations'' with local authorities were not sufficient reason to condemn him.
In one case, Misago met with a former governor, apparently to discuss the fate of 90 Tutsi schoolgirls, but the prosecution failed to prove he was responsible for their subsequent deaths, the court said.
Outside the courtroom, some Rwandans reacted bitterly to the decision.
''This is a political trial and we, the genocide survivors, continue to be victimized,'' said Fidele Rwamuza, who traveled 60 miles from Gikongoro to hear the verdict.
More than 125,000 genocide suspects are jailed in Rwanda. More than 1,500 have been tried so far, and 300 have been sentenced to death. The first 22 were publicly executed on April 24, 1998.
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