Rwanda has ended proceedings of genocide cases by its traditional Gacaca system, saying the village hearings were a success. Human rights organizations disagree.
The locally established Gacaca tribunals in Rwanda officially came to a close on Monday, after a decade of prosecuting genocide suspects. The village courts were established in 2002, to bring justice following Rwanda's genocide of 1994. About 800,000 people, most of them members of the ethnic minority Tutsis and moderate Hutus, were brutally murdered in a span of 100 days.
Bringing justice to the perpertrators was not going to be an easy task. Regular courts would have required decades to pass judgments. So Rwanda opted for the traditional form of justice known as Gacaca.
A fifth of Rwanda's population perished in the genocide
Record numbers of cases tried
"With over 12,000 Gacaca courts, it was possible to prosecute an extremely high number of cases in a relatively short time", said the Rwandan Justice Minister Tharcisse Karugarama. In his view, the Gacaca courts were unique, bearing in mind that in a period of 10 years, over 1.9 million cases were handled by the courts.
In 30 percent of those cases, the defendants were acquitted, one in 10 defendants was sentenced to life imprisonment. In the remaining cases, a maximum of between five to 25 years in prison was handed down to those found guilty. "If the Gacaca courts succeeded to pronounce sentences and impose penalties, as well as acquit people, then we can say that they functioned just as good as any other court," the minister of justice said.
Justice for the people, by the people
The Gacaca jurisdiction in Rwanda has a long tradition. For centuries, conflicts in the villages were resolved in this way. Judges who preside over Gacaca courts are chosen by the people within each community. A judge had to be of good character, though the majority had no legal training. However, they were tasked with the responsibility of trying complicated genocide cases.
A 2011 report from the Human Rights Watch organization found that the Gacaca courts lacked professionalism and suffered from other defects when seeking to administer international standards of justice.
"I think it is unrealistic to expect, even with the best will in the world, that people who have absolutely no legal training would be able to deal with these [genocide] cases," Human Rights Watch Senior Researcher on Rwanda, Carina Tertsakian said.
Another problem was that the Gacaca courts offer no statutory rights to legal defense. But the Rwandan government argued that in the case of the Gacaca courts it was not necessary to grant the right to fair trial, or provide a lawyer for the defendant. Most of the crimes were committed in public, and so any false testimony would have been unmasked immediately, the government claimed.
"The majority of people were proud to kill, and they did it in broad daylight. We also had eye witnesses. You do not need to be a law student to know whether the testimony given by witnesses is true," the justice minister argued.
Human Rights Watch also criticized the Rwandan government for exempting former soldiers of the Rwandan Patriotic Front, (RPF) from prosecution. Many victims would therefore never see justice. The RPF is the current ruling party in Rwanda.
Trying to heal the wounds of the past
As the Gacaca courts officially closed, the Rwandan government said they had achieved success, in terms of justice and national reconciliation, far beyond all expectations. That is evident through the peaceful coexistence of survivors and perpetrators of genocide in all parts of the country.
Bishop Jihn Rucyahana, chairman of the Rwandan Commission for National Unity and Reconciliation, believes the Gacaca courts were particularly important because they gave people the opportunity to share their experiences. "As a result, there was a healing process," Rucyahana said.
"It gave the offenders the opportunity to repent, and the victims the opportunity to forgive them," Rucyahana added.
Some observers suspect that the prevailing peace in the land is a result of the heavy hand of the government. Thousands of Rwandans have fled to neighboring countries to escape the Gacaca courts. The tribunals, Human Rights Watch said, had been used to settle old scores in some instances.
However, supporters and critics alike agree that the Gacaca courts were an important step towards national reconciliation.
Author: Daniel Gakuba / cm
Editor: Mark Caldwell