News / Africa

Twenty Years On, Questions of Rwandan Justice Persist

Twenty Years On, Questions of Rwandan Justice Persisti
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Emilie Iob
April 04, 2014 5:11 PM
As Rwandans observe the 20th anniversary of their nation's genocide, many are reflecting on the problems that have been overcome and whether justice has been adequately served. Emilie IOB reports for VOA from the Rwandan capital, Kigali.

VIDEO: As Rwandans observe the 20th anniversary of their nation's genocide, many reflect on whether justice has been adequately served.

At the main prison in Kigali, inmates who have been tried in court wear orange outfits. Those still awaiting trial wear pink, but they are now a minority.

In the immediate aftermath of the 1994 genocide — in which 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slaughtered in 100 days — there were 120,000 people accused of having taken part in the killings.

In those first years, all the accused were to be brought before the national court system, says Balinda Anastase, coordinator at the Ministry of Justice.

"We calculated that with an average of 1,000 people on trial per year, it would take a century just to judge the 120,000 incarcerated at the time," he says.

To accelerate the process, a traditional community justice system was implemented in the early 2000s. At the Gacaca courts, the community elected judges to try suspects.

But according to Anastase, there were some initial difficulties.

"Some people were not honest in their impartiality," he says. "There were instances of witness intimidation and even murder as neighbors testified against each other. It wasn't easy. "

Human Rights Watch and other groups were critical of the Gacaca courts' informality and lack of legal training for both judges and the defense.

But the Rwandan government defended the system, saying this kind of community justice helped reconciliation. To aid that process, a 2008 law also reduced sentences for convicts who showed remorse and apologized for their crimes.

Genocide Survivors Association secretary Naphtal Ahishakiye calls this something that was very important to the survivors.

"As survivors, we benefited from the Gacaca many things. One is the truth," he says. "Because, during Gacaca, we knew what happened to our family members."

After 10 years of operations, the Gacaca courts were closed in 2012, at which point the Rwandan government claims to have tried close to two million suspects — 65 percent of whom were convicted.

To try the leaders of the genocide, the United Nations in 1994 set up the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), based in Arusha, Tanzania.

The court has convicted 49 people of war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide, including former Prime Minister Jean Kambanda, who received a sentence of life in prison.

But survivors' groups weren't pleased with all ICTR decisions: Ahishakiye says the acquittal of two generals ignored critical testimony.

"As survivors, we have information on the part these people played in the genocide," he says. "It's the reason why [the court] ignored some facts."

New York-based Human Rights Watch has criticized the Arusha court for being unwilling to prosecute members of RPF, Rwanda's ruling party. The ICTR is due to close down at the end of the year.

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