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Gacaca Genocide Trials Set to Open in Rwanda


In Rwanda this week, preparations are under way to begin the first batch of genocide trials under a modified traditional communal court system known as "Gacaca." The system is proving to be controversial for some.

The word "Gacaca" means "judgment on the grass." Starting next month, groups consisting of people who have confessed to being involved in the 1994 genocide, witnesses, judges, and spectators will be sitting on the grass of football fields and other locations all across the country.

The first batch of trials is set to open in early February. The trials are based on information about participants and victims of the genocide gathered since the Rwandan government officially launched the court system in June 2002. More than 700 pilot Gacaca courts have been operational since the launch.

The Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Justice, Johnston Busingye, says during the trials, the accused will come face-to-face with victims, their families, and the community as the charges are read out.

"The trial hopes to bring to justice those who committed the genocide,” he said. “Gacaca hopes to accomplish that task in a very short time. Gacaca hopes to end up with a more reconciled community, a more unified community, than otherwise would have been if we went through the structures of the courts as we know them.

In total, up to 10,000 villages are expected to hold Gacaca trials by next year to hear the cases of more than 100,000 suspects. More than 200,000 Rwandan citizens have been chosen from local communities to sit on judicial panels that will preside over these trials. Panel members will undergo brief training on the law.

By holding the trials in the community, by the community, Mr. Busingye says the process will bring about healing and forgiveness, closure, a better understanding of what happened, and will keep the community intact.

During the genocide of 1994, Hutu extremists systematically killed up to 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

The Gacaca process is in sharp contrast to the conventional court system in Rwanda and elsewhere.

The spokesman for the Tanzanian-based United Nations' International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, Roland Amoussouga, says tribunal trials are based on due process and are heard by neutral, impartial judges, with lawyers representing the accused.

"Whereas the Gacaca system is not designed to drag its feet or to take time. It's a community-based adjudication of a conflict,” he said. “You don't have a lawyer, your own community fellows are your lawyers. They are also your prosecutors, they are also your witnesses."

And that has a woman who gives her name as Mary-Claire Kayitesi very worried. She fears giving her real name. Ms. Kayitesi, a genocide survivor who lives in Nairobi, says her family members and friends in Rwanda are extremely reluctant to get involved in the Gacaca system because they think that their testimony will not be believed and they will suffer for speaking out.

"The people are afraid to go and testify there,” she said. “After coming from there, you are going to be followed. The family or friends of those who have testified against you are going to wait for you and you are at risk of being killed also. So, me I think instead it's going to finish people and create more confusion and hatred in [the] people of Rwanda."

Human rights groups echo Ms. Kayitesi's fears. The New York-based Human Rights Watch said in 2001 report that the system, "may be subject to political pressures and lacks some basic internationally recognized safeguards, such as the right to legal counsel." In a 2002 statement, Amnesty International called for witness protection measures.

Permanent secretary Mr. Busingye says the Rwandan government is aware of peoples' fears and has put security and other measures in place to protect witnesses and to ensure that the Gacaca system is a success.

The Rwandan government says time is of the essence. It estimates it would take the conventional court system 200 years to resolve the cases of the more than 100,000 suspects.

The structure and functions of the Gacaca system are outlined under Rwandas Genocide Law. The legislation creates four categories of genocide suspects according to the severity and nature of the crime.

Those accused of masterminding, planning, or organizing the genocide fall under Category One. These most serious crimes are being tried by the conventional courts, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, and courts in Europe.

The Gacaca system will hear the cases of the remaining groups of suspects. Category Two includes people who were perpetrators of, or accomplices to, murder or assaults leading to death. Category Three contains people accused of other crimes such as assault, while those in Category Four committed offenses against property.

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