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Rwanda: Community Courts Under Scrutiny

Traditional courts were designed to speed the trial of lesser players in the Rwandan genocide, but Hutus fear they may dispense victor’s justice.
By Fawzia Sheikh

Rwandan prisoners clad in their trademark hot-pink uniforms are a familiar sight as they do community service work around the capital Kigali and neighbouring towns. The colour is meant to make them conspicuous if they escape.


Many Hutus guilty of killing during the country’s genocide in 1994 – in which about 800,000 Tutsis and politically moderate Hutus were massacred within three months - are sentenced to do community work as well as spending time in jail.


Some have gone before the more than 12,000 community-based courts called “Gacaca”. This system, working in the open air using traditional rather than formal judicial procedure, was set up to offer an alternative to courtroom trials that some predicted would take 150 years to be concluded.


According to Denis Bikesha, a lawyer with the National Gacaca Courts Service in Kigali, most of these started work in March and are still at the stage of collecting information from the community against accused Rwandans.


But 118 Gacaca courts that started as a pilot project in 2002 are already trying people for murder, serious assaults and property offences, said Bikesha.


Data from the Gacaca courts service show that by June this year, 1,294 people had received jail sentences of between one and 30 years. With 1,521 cases already heard, there were still over 63,000 pending as of March.


Bikesha explained that the normal Rwandan court system is handling those accused of leading the genocide or of rape and other sexual assaults. The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda based in Tanzania is trying the alleged ringleaders of the massacre, such as former prime minister Jean Kambanda, who has received a life sentence.


One of the greatest concerns emerging around the Gacaca process is that some witnesses are reluctant to tell the truth. According to Irénée Bugingo, a researcher at the Kigali-based Institute for Research and Dialogue for Peace, “survivors have been killed because they were going to testify”.


Human rights groups are concerned that the Gacaca process breeds false accusations, as people use the courts to settle personal scores. At the same time, they argue, it is difficult to judge complicity in genocide.


“A lot of people are obviously named as guilty because they were seen at roadblocks,” said the human rights group representative, noting that in fact some Hutus had set up roadblocks to divert Tutsis away from routes where they were likely – if they continued travelling along them – to be murdered.


Within the Hutu community, fears abound that justice will be weighted in favour of the Tutsis.


In June, Bugingo’s team travelled around Africa to talk to about 700 Hutus who had left Rwanda. He described the rumours swirling among this diaspora about the fate they believed awaited them if they returned, including stories that the Rwandan government was buying a giant “killing machine” that would grind people into a fine powder, or that the Hutus would be forced to become human taxis, carrying Tutsis on their backs.


Yet even if those accused of crimes were persuaded to return and face trial, there are still many obstacles to justice and reconciliation in Rwanda.


Many non-government organisations, NGOs, are fearful of incurring the government’s wrath if they are too vocal in criticising court cases.


The government’s relationship with the international donor community and aid agencies has been strained in recent years, and local NGOs have been accused of creating ethnic divisions – even of promoting the ideology of genocide, and some have been threatened with closure.


That “makes it difficult now for local organisations to really monitor Gacaca”, said a representative of one international human rights group who asked not to be identified.


When thousands of Hutus fled to Burundi this spring, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and a number of NGOs described them as asylum seekers. But the governments of Rwanda and Burundi forcibly repatriated them to Rwanda in June, to face justice in Gacaca courts.


The human rights group representative said these people, including many women and children, fled for a variety of reasons that ranged from alleged implication in the genocide to rumours of revenge killings orchestrated by Tutsis. “It’s very, very complicated and the government, I’m afraid, wants to make it a bit more simple than it actually is, because it suits it,” he said.


It is estimated that between 760,000 and one million people may have participated in the Rwandan massacre. That means a lot of potential convicts for Africa’s most densely populated country, where prison space is in short supply. Bugingo says the government constructed prisons and detention centres for about 100,000 people following the killings, but the effort has since faltered.


François Mugabo, coordinator of the Gacaca programme at the Kigali-based Avocats sans Frontières, says there are more urgent problems than opening prisons, such as providing financial aid to the victims. As it stands, he says, there is no money for genocide survivors because the guilty are too poor to pay fines that the formal courts imposed on them years ago.


The National Assistance Fund for Needy Survivors of Genocide and Massacres in Rwanda helps widows, orphans and the disabled to gain access to health and education, but this does not count as compensation. Although the government puts in money, and all Rwandan workers contribute one per cent of their wages towards survivors, this funding pool is thought to cover only 30 per cent of the need.


Some donors, in the name of promoting unity, have drawn the ire of predominantly Tutsi organisations such as Ibuka by insisting that grants should be conditional on NGOs including released prisoners as well as survivors. Ibuka’s executive secretary Benoit Kaboyi admits that his group sometimes loses money because it refuses to accept this condition.


Kaboyi, the head of Ibuka, believes future generations may live in harmony if tribal differences disappear and all Rwandans focus on rebuilding their homeland.


Yet he admits personal reconciliation is more doubtful for him, “I have nobody to go home to.”


Fawzia Sheikh is a Canadian journalist based in Kampala.


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