New Internationalist

Trial and Error

Issue 385

Trials of human rights violators are vital if impunity is to be confronted. But in most war-ravaged countries resources are limited, legal structures inadequate. Fawzia Sheikh reports on Rwanda’s community courts experiment.

It is not the place where you would expect to find justice in Rwanda: at the end of bumpy dirt road leading to a shantytown of red mud-brick homes.

Yet, deep within this labyrinth of buildings, streets and palm trees in the south of the capital, Kigali, a rudimentary courtroom has been set up.

Thin wooden poles covered by a tarpaulin enclose a stretch of grass where community trials known as gacaca are held in an effort to clear the enormous backlog of cases that relate to Rwanda’s 1994 genocide (the approximate meaning of gacaca is ‘justice on the grass’).

As many as a million minority Tutsis and politically moderate Hutus were murdered by Hutu extremists over the three-month period when the genocide occurred. The massacres began after a plane carrying Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana and the Burundian head of state was shot down over Kigali on 6 April 1994.

On a recent Saturday morning, the courtroom – in a neighbourhood called Akagari – was packed with over a hundred Hutu and Tutsi residents. Eight men and women presided over the community hearings, each of them wearing a sash inscribed with the word inyangamugayo. This is the Kinyarwanda term for ‘wise men’, which is also used to refer to people untainted by the 1994 massacres.

Trials in Akagari have been a regular fixture for months now, although the gacaca courts have been active elsewhere in Rwanda since March 2005. But, while few would disagree that the country’s conventional court system is unable to try the thousands who are accused of participating in the genocide, gacaca hearings have also come under criticism.

Community courts have been condemned for failing to stem reprisals against witnesses who give evidence about those implicated in the killings – although non-governmental organizations (NGOs) say this practice is not necessarily widespread.

A suit-clad lawyer walking along a dirt road in Akagari notes that the Supreme Court is reviewing three cases relating to murders committed two years ago in the town of Kadvha.

‘They killed people because they thought they were going to testify,’ he says, declining to be named for fear of repercussions in this small neighbourhood, where ‘we know everybody’.

Clementine Claudine, a 25-year-old resident of Akagari, has been warned twice that her mother or father will be killed if she testifies against a Hutu. Nonetheless, she says community members continue to participate in the trials because they believe ‘people will eventually be punished’.

Police protection for genocide survivors is wanting, leaving local administrators – or even the survivors themselves – the task of assuring safety. At a workshop held last May on the gacaca process, a police officer claimed that intimidation was on the decline – but refused to provide figures to support his case.

‘To me, it was a bit worrying that he kind of washed his hands of that,’ says one NGO representative, speaking on condition of anonymity. ‘It doesn’t really… put a lot of confidence in people.’

During the past year, NGOs working in Rwanda have been accused of promoting divisions between ethnic groups. As a result, many now avoid speaking openly of their observations, for fear of inviting government reproach.

Gacaca courts are also accused of focusing on Hutu misdeeds to the exclusion of alleged atrocities committed by Tutsis. The Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) – a rebel movement which seized control of Rwanda in the aftermath of the genocide – is itself accused of committing human rights abuses in the course of this campaign.

‘There’s a clear communication among… refugees that… this gacaca is not going to succeed because it is trying only Hutus,’ says Irénée Bugingo of the Kigali-based Institute of Research and Dialogue for Peace. Bugingo’s organization sent researchers to Zambia, Mozambique and Tanzania last spring to interview about 700 Hutus who fled Rwanda after the genocide.

Under the law, gacaca tribunals deal only with cases that relate directly to genocide. The crimes of rape and murder allegedly committed by the RPF must be handled by military courts says François Mugabo, co-ordinator of the gacaca programme at Lawyers Without Borders in Kigali.

Rwanda’s Military High Court claims that all guilty RPF soldiers have already been tried for their crimes, and either executed or imprisoned. But the court is unable, or unwilling, to provide figures in support of the claim. The court does not consider the RPF offences as ‘war crimes’, because of the supposedly isolated nature of these acts.

The gacaca system has also come under fire for offering limited financial compensation to genocide survivors.

‘Up to now, there’s been a problem with compensation because the law is silent on that matter,’ says Mugabo. ‘There are only reparations for stolen property – goats, cows, houses destroyed.’

A social fund contributes to health and education for widows, orphans and the disabled, though it is estimated that only 30 per cent of the needs of genocide survivors are covered by this programme.

Rwandan courts that initially tried génocidaires between 1997 and 2001 ordered damages to be paid to the tune of billions of Rwandan francs for each person affected by the killings.

But, says Mugabo: ‘Most of the people who committed these atrocities are really very poor and they don’t have any means to compensate. It became meaningless. Nothing has been paid.’

Similar concerns have been voiced about the lack of compensation for community members who run the gacaca trials, which are held as often as once a week in some areas. But while judges are not paid they do receive free education for their children and medical insurance.

According to the Government a total of 1,521 cases had been heard in gacaca courts by June 2005 – and 1,294 people had been sentenced from one to 30 years imprisonment. The number of cases changes each day. But there were more than 63,000 at that point.

A new law enacted last year makes it mandatory for Rwandans to participate in gacaca by sharing information about those accused of involvement in the genocide.

But the community courts are not responsible for trying the ringleaders of the genocide or those accused of sexual abuse in the 1994 massacres. Those crimes are handled by the regular Rwandan courts – and by the UN-appointed International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in Arusha, Tanzania. •

Trial and Error Rawanda

• There are more than 150,000 gacaca judges in Rwanda. Nine judges sit on each panel.

• More than 1,000 gacaca judges have resigned in the past three years after being accused of participating in the genocide.

• 1,600 trials have been completed so far. Regular courts would have taken 100 years to complete the genocide trials. Gacaca courts will do the job in about eight years.

Fawzia Sheikh is a freelance journalist based in Kigali. © Inter Press Service, 2005.

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