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Rwanda Set to Free 36,000 Inmates

Rwanda's cabinet approved the release of thousands of prisoners starting Friday, including those who have confessed to taking part in that country's 1994 genocide.

This is the third time Rwandan authorities have set free large numbers of prisoners to ease overcrowded prisons, due to the huge number of genocide cases.

So far, about 36,000 prisoners are scheduled for release. The genocide suspects eligible for release include those who have confessed to helping carry out the genocide, but did not plan or lead others to commit genocidal acts.

Past releases of prisoners suspected of taking part in the genocide have sparked anger from victims.

Those victims have been waiting a long time to see their assailants tried, says Alison DesForges, senior advisor for Human Rights Watch in Africa.

"In the sense that many people have been held in conditions of detention that amount to inhumane conditions, certainly anything which permits them to get out of those prisons and into a healthier lifestyle is something that is a positive development," she said. "But the important thing to stress here, I think, is the need for justice to be done, and for these people to eventually be brought to trial so that the innocent can be separated from the guilty."

Thousands of Rwandans released in 2003 were re-arrested after authorities obtained evidence of other, unconfessed crimes.

More than 500,000 Rwandan Tutsis and politically moderate Hutus were killed in a three-month rampage led by Hutu militias in 1994. Since then, with a huge backlog of cases at the United Nations-backed criminal tribunal in Arusha, Tanzania, many of those who allegedly took part in the atrocities have faced informal, neighborhood courts known as gacaca courts. Often, they are absorbed back into the community after confessing their crimes.