Rwanda: Gacaca courts near end

News and Press Release
Originally published
By Thijs Bouwknegt

The Rwandan Gacaca courts, initially scheduled to close in June 2009, will now have to finish their work by the end of this year.

The traditional courts were enlisted in 2001 to serve as a vehicle for truth, justice and reconciliation following the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

The age-old system was retooled to deal with overcrowded prisons holding up to 120,000 genocide suspects. Since 2005, more than 12,000 community juries have dealt with over a million files and secured over 70,000 convictions. Some 3,000 cases have not yet not been completed and their files will be sent to Rwanda's national courts.

Executive Secretary of the Gacaca Courts, Domitilla Mukantaganzwa, said the courts had been a success. "Gacaca has had a very big role in promoting the reconciliation process in Rwanda because it helped those who killed to come face to face with the survivors and through this process, genocide perpetrators have been able to seek forgiveness from survivors."

But not everyone has welcomed the traditional folk tribunals. Amnesty International said that the trials were compromised since the accused have no right to see their files or be legally represented. Amnesty also reported that judges and witnesses were frequently threatened and sometimes even murdered.

Richard Goldstone was the first Chief Prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. He agrees that the Gacaca "is not a fair system by the international standards", but argues that in the case of Rwandan genocide - where there were as many perpetrators as victims - the Gacaca has served a useful purpose. "I have yet to hear any rational alternative which could be used by the Rwandan government to get tens of thousands of suspects out of prison."