KIGALI, Rwanda (AP) _ A court has convicted 35 people of genocide and sentenced them to life in prison in the largest mass trial yet stemming from the country's 1994 slaughter, Radio Rwanda reported Saturday.

The defendants were among a group of 51 brought to trial in March as part of the government's effort to speed up proceedings for 130,000 people packed into Rwandan jails and accused of a variety of genocide-related crimes.

On Friday, the court in northeastern Byumba convicted 38 of the defendants, sentencing 35 of them to life in prison and three to lesser terms. Nine were acquitted, and four defendants died in prison, Radio Rwanda reported.

The 38 were convicted of taking part in, but not organizing, the 90-day slaughter of more than 500,000 minority Tutsis and moderate Hutus. The killing spree was orchestrated by the government, and then carried out by Hutu extremists. The killings ended when Tutsi rebels ousted the government in July 1994.

Since the first genocide trial in December 1996, Rwandan courts have convicted more than 350 people. A third have been sentenced to death, most others have received prison sentences and a small number have been acquitted. The first 22 executions were April 24.

Justice officials believe the executions prompted more than 2,000 prisoners to confess in exchange for leniency. Those who confess can have their sentences reduced if they implicate and help convict the organizers and leaders of genocide, most of them former Hutu authorities.

Rwandan courts have held mass trials before, but never involving so many defendants.

Independently, the U.N.'s International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda handles cases involving the alleged architects of the killings. On May 1, former Prime Minister Jean Kambanda pleaded guilty to genocide and offered to testify against ringleaders.

The tribunal has indicted 35 people and has 24 in custody; it is expected to hand down its first verdict next month.