Prosecutors at the UN’s Tanzania-based International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda say former army colonel Theoneste Bagosora, now 64, was in charge as troops and machete-wielding militiamen butchered some 800,000 people.
But from the stand, Bagosora has accused rebel-turned-president Paul Kagame of triggering the bloodshed, blamed the chief of UN peacekeepers for the murder of Rwanda’s prime minister and even denied genocide took place.
“I do not believe in the genocide theory. Most reasonable people concur that there were excessive massacres,” he said during testimony and cross-examining that has gone on since October 24. “They have labelled and continue to label me as the mastermind of the massacres. ... The accusations that I led the killings are malicious.”
The court has so far indicted 81 people, convicted 22 and acquitted three.
A succession of hardline defendants from the majority Hutu ethnic group have expressed a mixture of irritation, anger and incomprehension at the notion that a genocide occurred in 1994.
Many say they believed they were defending Hutus against an onslaught by minority Tutsi rebels.
Bagosora argues the 1994 killings were not premeditated despite prosecution evidence weapons were given out in advance and militias trained to slaughter Tutsis and moderate Hutus.
The massacres began when President Juvenal Habyarimana’s plane was shot down on April 6, killing him and sending the tiny country spiralling into three months of chaos.
Bagosora has accused now President Kagame of causing the massacres by shooting down the aircraft.
Mr Kagame’s rebels invaded from Uganda to end the massacres.
Before the killings broke out, Bagosora is accused of storming out of peace talks with Mr Kagame’s group in Tanzania and saying he was returning to Rwanda to “prepare the apocalypse.”
The most dramatic moment yet in these judicial proceedings came last year with testimony by Canadian General Romeo Dallaire, head of the UN forces during the genocide.
As Bagosora looked on, Gen Dallaire - who was so traumatised by his failure to halt the murders he later tried to kill himself - described him as the “kingpin” behind the genocide.
Bagosora, in turn, blamed Gen Dallaire for the death of Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana, murdered a day after Mr Habyarimana. Ten Belgian soldiers guarding her were taken to a military base where Rwandan troops beat them to death.
Bagosora told the tribunal he had tried to save the men, but was rebuffed by “mutinous” soldiers.
He faces life in prison if convicted on 11 charges of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.