Tue, Jul 06, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Rwandans face community trial

RECKONING In the next few weeks `gacaca' courts will start putting on trial people who are accused of participating in the 1994 genocide of Tutsis


Many hundreds of thousands of Rwandans accused of participating in the 1994 genocide are due to face justice for the first time under a controversial system of village courts which start hearing cases this month.

Virtually the entire population will be involved in the trials, which dispense with lawyers and rely on the community to act as witness, advocate and judge of one of the 20th century's greatest crimes.

The government has suggested that the number of accused could rise to 600,000, but no one knows what will happen once villages compile lists of suspects and victims.

Critics have questioned the fairness of the system and its potential for inflaming ethnic tension, but most accept that there is no better alternative to deal with a unique atrocity that turned so many people into murderers.

Soldiers, farmers, accountants, students, housewives and child-ren answered the call when an extremist Hutu regime ordered the extermination of minority Tutsis and moderate Hutus in April 1994.

Armed with guns, grenades, clubs and machetes, mobs slaughtered an estimated 800,000 people over 100 days.

It ended when a Tutsi-led regime took power, but a decade later most perpetrators have not been tried because conventional courts were overwhelmed, leaving more than 100,000 suspects in overcrowded jails and even more alleged killers on the streets.

Two years ago the government launched a pilot project to see if a traditional system of justice normally used to settle minor crimes could handle genocide.

The trials -- known as gacaca after the patch of grass where the community gathers to pass judgment -- were deemed a success and last month President Paul Kagame announced that every village would follow. Trials are expected to begin this month in a process expected to last several years.

"The aim is justice and reconciliation," said Felix Rwumbuguza, gacaca coordinator for the province of Gikongoro.

Each community selects nine judges who meet in the presence of the village to itemize crimes, typically in a dog-eared notebook, and suspects are questioned in front of neighbors and relatives, culminating in a ruling on guilt or innocence and a sentence of up to 25 years.

"The purpose is not vengeance. It is to restore unity. The dead can't be brought back but their relatives can't live without justice," said Ananias Sentozi, a coordinator with the aid group World Vision.

However, critics warn that the system is unbalanced and could sour ethnic relations.

"There is fear among many people that if the number of accused will be as large as the government says then it must include them," said Alison Des Forges, a Human Rights Watch researcher and authority on the genocide.

Amnesty International has also expressed concern at summary justice.

In pilot trials witnesses that initially sat in mixed groups segregated themselves into Hutu and Tutsi as trials progressed, she said, partly because the system was deemed weighted against suspects and partly because witness testimony could be unreliable.

But Des Forges did not oppose gacaca.

"At this point there is no alternative," she said.

Gacaca excludes the alleged masterminds of the genocide, who face trial in Rwanda's conventional courts and at a UN tribunal in Arusha, Tanzania.

Last year several witnesses were killed by genocide suspects to stop them testifying and last month several witnesses' houses were burnt near Butare.

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