SAN FRANCISCO, March 8 (Reuters) - Rwandan President Paul Kagame defended his recent decree releasing up to 40,000 inmates, including thousands of genocide suspects, saying on Saturday the move was necessary for national reconciliation.
"Keeping people in prison endlessly is not a cure to our problems. You have to carry out justice, you have to reconcile people," the mild-mannered Kagame, flashing an occasional smile, told Reuters in an interview. "I understand people who find it difficult to accept some of these things, especially the victims."
"I am one of the victims," he said, referring to what he said was numerous relatives killed in a 1994 slaughter of 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus. "But I find myself in the position sometimes where people look at me as being insensitive to their problems."
"But that is the price you pay for for being in leadership," he added.
More than eight years after the mass killings, Rwanda's prisons are overflowing with more than 100,000 people suspected of being involved in the genocide. With a population of a little more than seven million people, the rural nation's legal system has been unable to process all of the cases.
"It is not an amnesty that we are giving these prisoners. It is really simply, logically, managing a situation based on the laws already in place," he said. "The law provides for leniency in the cases of confession."
"If, for example, a charge against you would fetch a maximum sentence of 15 years and you come out, confess and apologize and, you know, help the whole justice process, that 15 years is reduced to seven and a half," he continued. "They deserve to be out as long as they confess."
Rwanda is due to come to the end of its post-genocide political transition this July, which means Kagame faces elections for the first time since taking power. A transitional national assembly appointed him president in 2000.
In the interview, he dismissed critics such as Amnesty International who say he has restricted political and civil liberties by, for example, jailing non-violent protesters.
"It is coming to fruition now, so why are people complaining today? I think it is people who just enjoy chaos," he said. "We do not refuse openness, freedom of political activities and expression and so on."
"But the simple thing we have been saying, and there is unanimity in Rwanda, we are saying yes, that is the way forward. But (remember) our history - so let's have some rules in place that guide us so that we do not slide back into this situation that we had in the past."
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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