Rwanda

Gacaca: Rwanda's grassroots justice

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Fifteen years on, Rwandans are still reliving the genocide. Every week, scores of people around the country attend the community-based Gacaca trials of alleged génocidaires in their communities.

By Thijs Bouwknegt

Two suspects dressed in pink prison uniforms are brought into the assembly room in a community centre in Runda, some 20 minutes outside Kigali. More than a hundred villagers take their seats in the small room, others gather around the building to watch the trial through the window. In attendance are victims, survivors and witnesses. The presiding judge asks for calm. "Please remember that this is not a market, this is a court of law."

After a minute of silence for victims of the genocide, the first suspect is called. Hitimana was a community driver in 1994 and is accused of having driven dead bodies from the central church and dumped them in the nearby Nyaborongo river. The man, who is in his thirties, claims he is innocent. He is a Tutsi and says that he was a victim of the genocide himself. Several witnesses confirm Hitimana's story while others say they witnessed his crimes. Establishing the truth will be a difficult task for the six community judges.

Reconciliation

The Gacaca tribunal in Runda has dealt with over a thousand genocide cases in the past four years. The court's coordinator Paul Rutega says the Gacaca has done much to "bring together and reunite" the community. It is all about reconciliation, he adds: "If someone apologises to you, it is like he releases his burden to you. If someone takes the courage to apologise, it is up to the victim to deal with it."

Hitimana's case is one of the last trials in Runda. So far, 12,103 Inkiko Gacaca have handled more than a million cases and convicted some 800,000 people nationwide. The work of the 169,442 local judges is nearly complete, although some 3,000 open cases will continue to be heard this year.

The age-old Gacaca system was revived in 2001 to deal with a collapsed justice system and overcrowded prisons and is intended to serve as a vehicle for truth, justice and reconciliation.

"Gacaca has had a very big role in promoting reconciliation in Rwanda because it is a forum in which those who killed come face to face with the survivors," says Jean Baptiste Habyalimana of Rwanda's National Unity and Reconciliation Commission. "94% of Rwandans say they have faith in the process", he adds.

Gacaca is Rwanda's main instrument of transitional justice. And importantly, the system is community-based, unlike the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) in Arusha, in neighbouring Tanzania. The tribunal only prosecutes the main instigators of the genocide, including government officials, the military and militia leaders.

Criticism

In Rwanda, the ICTR is often perceived as a western way of doing justice - unproductive, time-consuming, expensive and not adapted to Rwandan custom. Moreover, victims and survivors have no means of seeing what goes on in Arusha. "The money which was brought to Arusha, could have been better invested in the development of the national judiciary," says Rwanda's Minister of Justice, Tharcisse Karugarama. "Then we could even have had much better and efficient trials in Rwanda."

The Gacaca have been criticized by human rights organisations because defendants are not allowed to have lawyers. The courts have also been troubled by corruption and have been accused of being used to settle other disputes. In the first years of the trials, there were even reports of witnesses and judges being murdered.

But Roelof Haveman of the National Institute for Legal Practice and Development (ILPD) says it is premature to evaluate the system given the breadth of its objectives. "We need an interdisciplinary approach - involving lawyers, historians, anthropologists and psychologists," he says. "It is too early because the whole process was rather experimental and not yet finished."