Following the 1994 genocide, many thousands of people were arrested and charged in the killings of about 800 thousand Tutsi and moderate Hutu.
However, the Rwanda court system and the International Tribunal on Rwanda were unable to handle all of the cases. As a result, it was decided in 2001 to deal with some of the cases through traditional justice system known as gacaca. But many have criticized gacaca, saying genocide is too big a crime to go before the village courts, or that the courts fail to deliver justice. After handling thousands of cases, the system is expected to be closed for genocide crimes in June.
Among those critical of the system is Georgette Gagnon, Africa director for Human Rights Watch. From New York, she told VOA English, "Since the early days of gacaca, we have had some concerns with the way the process has unfolded. In particular, we've been concerned about whether the person facing gacaca is receiving a fair trial…. The process does not permit the accused to have legal representation. The person who is deciding the case generally is not legally trained. And often the substance of the case is actually criminal in nature," she says.
There are specific guidelines for the handling of criminal cases.
"Under international fair trial standards, the proceeding is not fair. It's not following what the US would call due process," she says.
Asked whether the decision to use gacaca was a bad one, considering the huge number of genocide-related cases that overwhelmed official courts, Gagnon says, "The decision to pursue some of these cases or the majority of cases in such a system as gacaca was certainly not a bad decision. Obviously it was made to try and address the fact that hundreds of thousands of people were accused of committing genocide or participating in the genocide. And…there were different category of offenders."
Gagnon says some people abused the gacaca system, resulting in unfair trials. Human Rights Watch had recommended some changes, which she says, the Rwandan government did not implement.
"For example, ensuring that the person accused does have some form of appropriate legal representation, (and) that the accused can bring forward witnesses in his or her defense. One of the key problems is that the accused often finds he or she cannot lead their defense through witness testimony. The problem is witnesses receive no protection from anybody, certainly not from the state. They are often intimidated or prosecuted by police, by security agents, by government officials. Human Rights Watch has documented such intimidation," she says.
Gagnon says that witnesses themselves may be accused of what's called genocide ideology. "The person comes forward to perhaps say this person did not participate in this way in the genocide and that person often finds themselves ending up…as an accused person before the gacaca proceeding," she says.
Another concern is that gacaca may have failed in many cases in one of its goals – reconciliation.
"Some certainly might argue that the system of gacaca has ended up dividing people even further or deepening some of the fissures and tensions that of course arose during the genocide. Others would argue that in fact it has promoted reconciliation in many, many cases. I think time will tell what sort of the ultimate result of the gacaca system is," she says.
Once the gacaca trials end in June, both the Rwandan government and Human Rights Watch say they will conduct separate analyses of how effective the traditional system was in dealing with the genocide.