Africa, Headlines, Human Rights

RIGHTS-RWANDA: Justice Eludes Many 1994 Genocide Survivors

Aimable Twahirwa

KIGALI, Jul 28 2006 (IPS) - Fear and intimidation have slowed the progress of reconciliatory justice for survivors of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda that claimed the lives of over 800,000 people.

Four years after traditional courts called “gacaca” (literally “justice on the grass” in the Kinyarwanda language) were set up to try some 63,000 cases by end-2007, judgments have been delivered in only 6,267 cases.

The gacaca system is based on voluntary confessions and apologies by wrongdoers. In the genocide cases, community members were invited to participate in the trial stage.

The government had turned to the traditional system of justice to relieve the burden on conventional courts, which would have taken decades to try the suspects. But survivors, local and international jurists have expressed doubts about the ability of the system to deliver the promised reconciliatory justice.

Several jurists, who did not want to be identified, expressed disappointment over the “slow wheels” of this new system of justice.

Non-governmental groups representing survivors are of the opinion that witnesses for the prosecution are anxious because the authorities have failed to guarantee their protection against attacks by family members of the accused.

“Several dozen survivors were killed because they wanted to be defense witnesses in the gacaca. It’s sad and scandalous to observe that the same situation still exists,” said Benoit Kaboyi, executive secretary of ‘Ibuka’ (“remember”): one of the main survivors’ organisations.

Charlotte Murebwayire of Buhanda, central Rwanda, is a widow who lost her husband and five children in the genocide. She has been humiliated and threatened with death several times for daring to testify for the prosecution in the gacaca.

One anonymous mail that she found on her door one morning warned: “It’s not enough just to shut you up. Your very existence is a danger to us.” Murebwayire lives in a village built for widows and child-headed families orphaned in 1994.

“I can imagine what would eventually happen to my life,” she said, resignedly.

In 1994, minority Tutsis and politically moderate Hutus were targeted by Hutu extremists over a three-month period of blood-letting. The massacres followed the death of Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana and the Burundian head of state whose plane was shot down over Kigali on Apr. 6 that year.

“This country’s social fabric was torn apart when thousands of lives were lost. Parents killed children and vice-versa; some people killed their neighbours,” recalled Domitille Mukantaganzwa, executive secretary of the national authority in charge of gacaca courts.

Mukantaganzwa, who authored a report on gacaca published Jun. 30, has calculated that the courts’ decisions were challenged in just 1,371 cases. Of these, only 675 are still under investigation; in addition, 436 persons have been transferred to a list of important suspects who allegedly participated directly in the planning and execution of the genocide.

“The genocide’s foremost accused perpetrators will be judged in the traditional courts,” Mukantaganzwa explained. She hinted that the mandate for the gacaca trials is likely to be pushed beyond the end-2007 deadline, especially if new cases implicating fresh suspects are presented.

Following a joint inquiry conducted in June by expert lawyers, Mukantaganzwa said the total number of people to appear before the gacaca could go as high as 761,446.

“Such reconciliatory justice constitutes an important stage in the eradication of the culture of impunity. It will also contribute to ending the climate of suspicion, and will allow people once again to coexist in peace and harmony,” she added.

Deo Kalinda, a perpetrator of the genocide who has been provisionally freed for having repented of his crime publicly, is of the belief that the gacaca encourage true reconciliatory justice.

“It was difficult to believe that there could be a presidential pardon for such acts,” said this Hutu farmer from Ntongwe, in south-central Rwanda, who is presently doing community service for having agreed to testify before the gacaca.

However, rights watchdog Amnesty International said Rwandan authorities must make sure that the gacaca trials conform to “basic international standards of equity if they want their efforts to end impunity to be successful” – this in a 2002 report on the gacaca.

Still, by giving the genocide survivors, the accused, and witnesses the possibility of airing their cases in an open environment based on participation for all, the gacaca people’s courts could allow Rwanda to take an important step towards “national reconciliation and the resolution of the prison crisis,” Amnesty noted.

“Justice and national reconciliation will never be a reality unless the Rwandan government insists on standards of equity in the gacaca trials,” it added.

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