Global Policy Forum

Rwanda Estimates 1 Million Face Genocide Charges


By Arthur Asiimwe

January 14, 2005

An estimated 1 million Rwandans -- an eighth of the population -- are expected to be tried in traditional "gacaca" village courts for alleged participation in the 1994 genocide, an official said on Friday.

Domitilla Mukantaganzwa, executive secretary of the National Service of Gacaca Jurisdictions, said trials in some areas might start next month, with proceedings beginning in the rest of the country in 2006. "Drawing from the experience and figures accruing from the pilot trials, we estimate a figure slightly above 1 million people that are supposed to be tried under the gacaca courts," she told Reuters. Her comment indicates the vast scale of the task awaiting the courts, gearing up to hear accusations against hundreds of thousands of people now living at liberty, often alongside neighbors whose relatives they are suspected of killing.

The courts, a revamped version of a traditional form of justice, were launched in 2002 on an exploratory basis to speed up trials of suspects charged in conventional courts with taking part in the slaughter of 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus from April to June 1994. Almost 11 years after the massacres, the backlog of suspects awaiting trial in conventional courts remains enormous. There are 80,000 people behind bars and many would be likely to die before their cases would be heard under the existing justice system. Although many will be transferred eventually to gacaca courts for trial, exact numbers have not been decided.

In the past two years, thousands of other suspects have been questioned by 751 village courts, sitting as investigative panels, to see if there was a case to answer. Those sessions are now complete and trials resulting from these investigations might start in February 2005, Mukantaganzwa said. On Monday, investigative hearings will be launched in a further 8,262 courts, she said, adding that trials in these courts would start only next year. "The investigations have only been limited in the areas where pilot trials were held, but this time round (from Monday) the exercise will be rolled out to all parts of the country," Mukantaganzwa said. "We hope all this should be over by year end to have full trials commence (in 2006)." Ringleaders of the killings, however, will be tried by conventional courts.

Grass Courts

Focusing on confession and apology, the gacaca courts are also intended to ease the way to national reconciliation. Under gacaca, those who confess and plead guilty before a set date will have their sentences reduced. Gacaca (meaning grass) courts were traditionally used by village communities who would gather on a patch of grass to resolve conflicts between two families, employing the heads of each household as judges.

Critics have said the investigative panels convened so far have often appeared to lack order, and rights group Amnesty International has said that "gacaca may become a vehicle for summary and arbitrary justice that fails defendants and genocide survivors alike." Rwandan officials admit that gacaca is flawed, but they argue there is no alternative and the international donor community, which is funding gacaca, seems to agree.

Gacaca will be a world away from the robed lawyers and air-conditioned hallways of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in the northern Tanzanian town of Arusha, where proceedings are carried out behind bullet-proof glass. In the 10 years since it was set up to try the masterminds of the genocide, the tribunal has indicted 81 people for genocide-related crimes. It has convicted 20 and acquitted three.

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