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Rwanda Prisoner Release Angers Genocide Survivors - 2003-01-08

The Rwandan government said it will soon release about 40,000 prisoners, including thousands of genocide suspects, to reduce jail overcrowding. The decision is angering many survivors of the 1994 mass killings.

Rwandan President Paul Kagame issued the prisoner release order late Tuesday. The country's justice ministry said starting early next month, thousands of prisoners will be freed to make room in the country's overflowing jail cells.

Prisoners to be freed include young people, and the old or sick. Others are being released because they have been detained for so long without a trial that the government said it runs the risk of breaking a law prohibiting such imprisonment.

Those prisoners include thousands of people suspected of taking part in the 1994 mass killings of Rwandan minority Tutsis and Hutu moderates. About 800,000 people were massacred during a three month-long rampage.

Since then, Rwanda has rounded up more than 100,000 genocide suspects. But few have been tried in a Rwandan court. The country's legal system has simply been unable to cope with the numbers.

Key leaders of the genocide are being tried by an international tribunal in Tanzania. But thousands of alleged participants have been awaiting trial in Rwanda for nearly a decade.

Eager to find a solution, Rwandan officials last June launched a unique mass justice system of trying genocide suspects before traditional village courts.

Under the system, those suspected of murder or inciting genocide are taken to villages where they allegedly committed the crimes. There, they are tried by the people who witnessed the crimes and are judged by locally elected judges.

Many survivors of the genocide oppose the release order, saying it will be hard to pursue any kind of justice once the prisoners are free. They also fear the men will try to kill again.

Jean Bosco Gasherebuka is the secretary general of Ibuka, a Kigali-based umbrella organization for genocide survivors. "It is difficult to be happy when people who have killed your family are released. So, we ask the government to preserve the security of the rescued from the genocide because security is not assured," Mr. Gasherebuka said.

The Rwandan government said it is not releasing any masterminds behind the genocide, and insists it will bring every suspect to trial, including those who are to be released.