Mixed verdict for Rwanda's community courts

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

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 number of cases that relate to Rwanda’s 1994 genocide (the approximate meaning of gacaca is “justice on the grass”).

Upwards of 800 000 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 April 6 1994.

On a recent Saturday morning, the courtroom—in a neighbourhood called Akageri—was packed with more than 100 Hutu and Tutsi residents. Eight men and women presided over the hearings, each of them wearing a sash inscribed with the word “inyangamugayo”.
This is the Kinyarwanda term for “wise men”, also used to refer to people untainted by the 1994 massacres.

Trials in Akageri have been a regular fixture for a month now, although the gacaca courts have been active elsewhere in Rwanda since March. 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 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 in 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 as well that he kind of washed his hands of that,” says a representative of an international NGO, 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 atrocities allegedly committed by Tutsis. The Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF)—a rebel movement that seized control of Rwanda in the aftermath of the genocide—is accused of perpetrating 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, who works at the Kigali-based Institute of Research and Dialogue for Peace—an organisation that sent researchers to Zambia, Mozambique and Tanzania last month 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, coordinator of the gacaca programme at the Lawyers without Borders NGO 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 was not able to give figures in this regard to news agency IPS. The court does not consider the offences of RPF troops 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 a problem of compensation because even 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% of the needs of genocide survivors are covered by this programme.

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

However, “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,” says Mugabo.

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

According to the government, 1 521 cases had been heard by last month in gacaca courts—and 1 294 people sentenced from one to 30 years’ imprisonment. The number of cases pending changes each day, but the figure stood at 63 447 last March.

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.

Community courts are not responsible for trying the ringleaders of the genocide, however, or those accused of perpetrating sexual abuse in the 1994 massacres. This duty falls to regular Rwandan courts—and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, based in Tanzania.—IPS

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