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Rwanda Working With Burundi, Uganda To Return Genocide Suspects

Rwanda is working with Burundi, Uganda, and other governments to track down and return genocide suspects fleeing traditional trials.

The Rwandan government estimates that at least 2,000 genocide suspects have fled Rwanda into neighboring Burundi and about 1,200 have gone to Uganda within the past month to avoid local court trials.

The Rwandan president's envoy to the Great Lakes Region, Richard Sezibera, says some have returned on their own. He says his government has made agreements with Burundi, Uganda and others to get the rest back to appear in village-based Gacaca courts.

"If you fled Gacaca, whether you are in Rwanda or outside the country, if you are a genocide suspect then the courts will follow you," he said. "The government of Rwanda has the capacity to track people down, working in concert with other governments such as Burundi, Uganda. Some suspects are farther afield. Some are in the United States, others are in Europe."

Media reports also quote Rwandan refugees in Burundi denying that they fled because of the traditional courts, but rather because they feared being attacked by Tutsi genocide survivors.

During Rwanda's 1994 genocide, Hutu extremists killed up to 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

The cases of high-level officials in the Rwandan government, media, and army accused of masterminding the genocide are being tried at the Tanzanian-based U.N. International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. But those cases are relatively few.

There is a huge backlog in Rwanda to bring to trial low-level officials and ordinary citizens accused of participating in the genocide. The Rwandan government estimates it would take the conventional court system 200 years to resolve the cases of more than 100-thousand suspects.

In response to the number of cases, the Rwandan government created a modified traditional communal court system known as Gacaca, meaning judgment on the grass. After a series of pilot projects, the trials began this March.

Up to 10,000 villages are expected to hold Gacaca trials by next year. More than 200,000 judges chosen from local communities based on their moral integrity will preside over these trials.

There has been some opposition to the trials. The New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a 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.

The government has said it 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.