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Rwanda Revives 'Traditional' Court System for Genocide Cases - 2002-06-18

Rwandan President Paul Kagame has revived a traditional court system to hear the cases of more than 100,000 people accused of taking part in the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. The genocide suspects will be taken to the scene of the alleged crimes and judged by their neighbors.

President Kagame announced a revival of the traditional gacaca court system in a speech at parliament.

The Rwandan leader urged the country's 115,000 jailed genocide suspects to "be courageous enough to confess what happened and ask for forgiveness." He said he hopes the gacaca justice system will reconcile Rwandans and show "that the Rwandan family is capable of solving its own problems."

Gacaca, which means grass, is a traditional form of Rwandan justice. Villagers used to gather on a patch of grass to resolve conflicts between families, with household heads acting as judges.

The revived gacaca system will be used to try people accused of murdering about 800,000 minority Tutsis and moderate Hutus in the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Under the system, prisoners will be brought before public gatherings in their hometowns or villages. Residents will be invited to give evidence for or against them.

About 250,000 local judges, elected last year, will give the final verdict. Most of these local judges have no formal legal experience, but they have received six days of training in such subjects as law, conflict resolution and judicial ethics.

Suspects who plead guilty will have their sentences reduced.

Human rights groups have criticized the gacaca courts, saying villagers and judges so closely associated with the genocide cannot be trusted to give suspects a fair trial.

But Rwandan officials say they have little choice. Fewer than 7,000 people have been tried since genocide-related trials began in 1996. About 115,000 suspects are still waiting for their cases to be heard.

Many of the accused have no specific charges against them, despite having spent up to eight years in Rwanda's dangerously overcrowded prisons.

Without gacaca, the government estimates it would take more than 200 years to clear the backlog of cases. There is a serious shortage of experienced judges, prosecutors and lawyers in Rwanda. Such professionals were among the first to be targeted during the genocide.

The first gacaca trial begins Wednesday. Authorities hope to extend the system across Rwanda within two months.

The United Nation's war crime tribunal for Rwanda, based in Arusha, Tanzania, will continue to try people accused of masterminding the genocide.