The conviction of Théoneste Bagosora is a milestone in the prosecution of those who perpetrated the Rwandan genocide

There were no sealed trains or secluded camps in Rwanda. The killing took place in broad daylight. A planned and political campaign, and a way to avoid powersharing with a minority, the genocide began on April 6 1994 and lasted until July 17, during which time up to one million people were murdered. On Thursday, at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) in Arusha, Tanzania, three military officers were sentenced to life for this crime. In a landmark ruling – and a milestone for international justice – they were convicted of genocide, crimes against humanity and crimes of war: they were Colonel Théoneste Bagosora, Lt Colonel Anatole Nsengiyumva and Major Aloys Ntabakuze.

Their trial was called Military One and took more than six and a half years to complete. But the judgment at last demonstrates the scope and scale of their infamy. It has shown how one defendant, Bagosora, the so-called mastermind, had been in authority when genocide began. It was Bagosora who had taken control of the elite army units whose soldiers had left barracks on April 7 with orders to kill anyone with a Tutsi identity card.

Bagosora, who was the chief of staff in the defence ministry, has been held accountable for the brutal murder of 10 Belgian UN peacekeepers, the escort for the prime minister, Agathe Uwilingiyimana, who had wanted to go to Radio Rwanda to broadcast for calm. She was shot some hours later by presidential guard. It was Bagosora, too, who ordered her killing and that of the head of the constitutional court, Justice Joseph Kavaruganda. Bagosora had then been responsible for the massacres of Tutsi civilians in churches and schools and at strategically placed roadblocks.

These killings, unspeakable in their brutality, saw victims cut apart by machete, many of them bleeding to death. Bagosora had helped to create and arm the Interahamwe militia, street gangs trained to kill at speed.

The verdict, read by Judge Erik Mose, called Bagosora to account for Gikondo, a parish in the capital city, where, on April 9 1994, whole families had been cut down in the Church compound, and where the word genocide had first been used, by Philippe Gaillard, the Swiss chief delegate of the International Committee of the Red Cross. But Bagosora, who had counted on the passivity of the UN security council, had perpetrated genocide safe in the knowledge that the world would fail react.

His background as the son of a school teacher, and recruited to the army from a Catholic school, gives no clue to his later brutality. He trained in Europe, had been several times to military academies in Belgium and, in December 1981, had been the first Rwandan army officer to attend the Etudes Militaires Supérieures de l'Ecole de Guerre Française, where he achieved a diploma in advanced military studies.

At his trial, he had testified in his own defence, and during 15 days in the witness box had called this "victor's justice". The foundation of the defence case was that the Tutsi rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), had shot down the plane carrying the Hutu president, Juvenal Habyarimana – this assassination on April 6 the catalyst for the genocide. Bagosora described it as a "fateful day", and remarked how extraordinary it was that so many people responsible for state security were either dead or out of the country. "Me, I don't believe that genocide took place", he said. "Most reasonable people think there were excessive massacres." He blamed the people of Rwanda for the killing as, he claimed, they were fearful of an RPF takeover and reacted with "spontaneous anger" towards Tutsis whom they blamed for the loss of their beloved president at the hands of the rebels.

Nazi ideology was rooted in racism and so it was with "Hutu Power". Bagosora never hid his racist views and would spit at Tutsis in the officers' mess. He promoted the idea that Tutsis did not belong in Rwanda, that they were invaders. Even from his cell in Arusha, he continued to justify his actions, writing that the Hutu were modest, open and loyal, while Tutsi were cruel, arrogant, clever and sneaky. "The Tutsi are the masters of deceit, even going as far as comparing themselves with the Jews of Europe to gain the sympathy of this powerful lobby … but the Tutsi have never had a country of their own." He was impassive when sentenced and has never once shown remorse.

The words of Justice Robert Jackson during the Nazi prosecutions in Nuremburg seems a fitting epitaph for the three defendants of Military One, whose trial proceedings are now at an end:

"We will show them to be the living symbols of racial hatreds, of terrorism and violence, and of the arrogance and cruelty of power … They are symbols of fierce nationalism and of militarisation, of intrigue and war-making …"

The Guardian