Bagosora, 67, a former colonel who was the chief of staff in Rwanda's defence ministry, was convicted of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes at the end of a five-year trial after judges found that he used the military and an extremist Hutu militia to kickstart the massacre of about 800,000 Tutsis in 100 days.
The international criminal tribunal for Rwanda, sitting in Tanzania, also found Bagosora guilty of responsibility for overseeing individual massacres as well as the murder of Rwanda's prime minister, Agathe Uwilingiyimana, and the killing of 10 Belgian peacekeepers, which prompted the UN to withdraw most of its forces and abandon the Tutsi population to be slaughtered. Lieutenant General Romeo Dallaire, the UN commander in Rwanda, who called Bagosora the "kingpin" behind the genocide, described meeting him as like "shaking hands with the devil".
But the court did not convict Bagosora on the broader charge of conspiracy to commit genocide before the killing, saying that while he created, armed and trained the militia that carried out the massacres and headed an "enemy commission" that vilified Tutsis, that did not demonstrate that he had planned the extermination from the beginning.
"The chamber certainly accepts that there are indications which may be construed as evidence of a plan to commit genocide, in particular when viewed in light of the subsequent targeted and speedy killings immediately after the shooting down [of President Juvénal Habyarimana's plane which unleashed the genocide]," the judgment said. But the tribunal said these preparations were in the context of a war with Tutsi rebels and could not be said beyond doubt to be solely preparations to exterminate civilians.
Once the killings began, the tribunal found that Bagosora was the highest authority in the defence ministry and oversaw control of the military as it murdered opponents and kickstarted the genocide. The court said the killings "formed part of an organised military operation pursuant to orders from superior military authorities". Bagosora said nothing as the verdict was delivered.
Two other army officers on trial with Bagosora, Aloys Ntabakuze and Anatole Nsengiyumva, were also given life sentences for genocide. Prosecutors called them "enemies of the human race". A fourth defendant, Gratien Kabiligi, the former chief of military operations, was acquitted of all charges and released.
Barbara Mulvaney, the lead prosecutor, described the verdicts as historic. "I think it's one of the most important verdicts ever because the body of work, in documents in black and white, in transcripts, in video tapes, lays out the planning and organisation of a genocide," she said. "And it's important to the Rwandan people because it finally puts to rest the claims by some people ... who still deny there was a genocide or deny that it was planned. No one can claim that any more."
But the relevance of the tribunal has been diminished in Rwanda by lengthy trials held outside the country. None of the Hutu leaders on trial have apologised for their role in the genocide, raising fears among some Tutsis that it could happen again.