Part II: Rwanda’s gacaca courts

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A gacaca court in session in Ruhango, Rwanda.

In Rwanda, a huge legal experiment is underway. It's called Gacaca.

Since 1994 the government has struggled to administer justice to hundreds of thousands of genocide suspects. A UN court was set up in Tanzania to try high level suspects. The regular Rwandan courts began processing the rest. But they were soon overwhelmed. So the government adapted a traditional form of dispute resolution into a grassroots apparatus for trying genocide cases.

There are almost as many genocide suspects in Rwanda as victims. The government puts the number of dead at 1 million. It estimates the number of killers at 800,000.

"So we have lost a big number of people, but these people have been also killed by another big number. After that observation our government has decided to look for an alternative solution. That's why we have Gacaca now," says Domitilla Mukantaganzwa, a government official in charge of the Gacaca courts.

Mukantaganzwa wants justice for the victims, but she also wants Rwandans to come together.

"We don't need only justice. We need also reconciliation. We need also to educate our population to show them that they are really the same population. They are really the same community," she says.

Gacaca courts don't try the planners and instigators of genocide. But they do deal with the bulk of the suspects.

The cornerstone of the Gacaca is the confession. Many suspects who confess are released from prison to appear before Gacaca courts in their home towns. Those courts then determine their fate. The judges are regular people, elected by popular vote.

The word Gacaca means "on the grass." And the gatherings are literally on the grass, under the trees, by the side of the road. 

The people of Ruhango gather under a grove of eucalyptus trees to hear a Gacaca appeals case. Seven local judges with green, yellow, and blue sashes sit on a simple wooden bench behind a long table. The accused man is called John Pierre Munyakayanza. He stands stock still in front of the judges, his arms folded at his chest. A judge reads the details of the case.

Munyakayanza was only 19 during the genocide. He spent 6 years in prison. A Gacaca court heard his confession and sentenced him to those 6 years already served, plus two years community service. But a survivor has appealed the sentence, saying it's too light.

Munyakayanza was part of a gang that manned a roadblock during the genocide. Roadblocks were used to check ID cards. Those ID cards listed a person's ethnicity. One day a Tutsi known as "Colonel" ran the roadblock on a bicycle. Munyakayanza's gang hunted him down. They handed him over to soldiers. He was put in a vehicle and driven away. He's never been seen again. The crux of this case is whether Munyakayanza had a role in Colonel's murder. Munyakayanza says he did not.

"They ask whether they tortured him. He says no no no we didn't torture him. You can ask the people who were present. No one would admit that we tortured him," my translator says, explaining what's happening.

"They say, did you plan to kill Colonel? He said for sure I didn't plan. I didn't have power over my body to say I cannot go.  It was forced. Everybody was forced to go on attacks and that stuff. For sure. I think my weakness I can say is that I did not refuse to go," he continues.

The crowd listens intently. It's a daunting task these community courts have taken on. There are 12,000 of them in operation in Rwanda today. The results so far are mixed. One of the most serious challenges has been the killing and intimidation of witnesses. Gacaca official Mukantaganzwa is remarkably frank about the problem.

"People here, they are not ready to accept easily what they have done. So they are killing witnesses, they are killing survivors, they are intimidating them," she says.

Mukantaganzwa is also frank about the weakness of some of the confessions. They are often incomplete she says.

"Sometimes these people, they say if I confess totally I'm going to denounce my father, I'm going to denounce my brother, I'm going to denounce my wife. Maybe I'm going to denounce the big man who is with me in prison and maybe within prison if I denounce them they are going to kill me. Sometimes I think we have this partial confession because of the environment," she says.

Still, Mukantaganzwa would much rather have a partial confession than no confession at all. And in the long run she's optimistic justice will prevail.

Bonaventure Nyibisi is not. He is the director-general of a new bank in the capital Kigali. He has been attending the Gacaca for the group of killers who have confessed to murdering his mother. He says he is disappointed in the process.

"You have all these people who are recognizing that they have killed. Not one person, not two not five not ten but so many people. And in this case they were all involved in the killing of my mother and all of them are free on the basis that they have confessed and what is even more disturbing because I don't see the confession that they are doing being genuine it is because they have been able to read the law to follow the process and say if we do this then we will be free," he says.

Alison des Forges is a Rwanda scholar and a senior advisor to Human Rights Watch.

"It is tempting to say that since a genocide in itself doesn't make sense, so any attempt to do justice for it isn't going to make sense either," she says. "The scale of this is so enormous that it is difficult to imagine a system which could in fact deliver justice."

She says the Gacaca program is an impressive attempt, but she fears it's inherently flawed. She says it's hard to blend a customary practice of reconciliation with a system of criminal justice.

"A system of reconciliation believes in recreating social harmony as the ultimate objective. And having people tell the truth, show remorse, is the best way to achieve that. But in a situation where the harm done goes so far beyond the ordinary scale of what a reconciliation system is ordinarily meant to deal with, it's very difficult to find a way to include the element of some form of punitive action because the people who did these things should in fact be punished," she says.

Des Forges says it's too early to tell whether the Gacaca system will succeed. But the costs in the short term have been high.

"There are many indicators that the beginning of the gacaca trials has led to increasing tension, increasing verbal assaults and actual physical assaults being made upon survivors, to a sense of fear on the part of witnesses who feel they can be attacked for attempting to bring the truth forward, and a sense of fear on the part of other Rwandans who feel that they may be accused simply because they are part of the ethnic group from which the killers were drawn," she says.

Back at the Gacaca appeals court in Ruhango the judges probe gently. They call witnesses up one by one. There are seven in all. Most confirm what Munyakayanza has already confessed to – that he was with the group that seized "Colonel." No one saw him touch Colonel. But one witness does say Munyakayanza did get into the vehicle that took the victim away.

When the official witnesses have finished, the head judge asks if anyone else wants to speak. A handful of men come forward. They speak softly. They are sympathetic to the accused. They say they believe he didn't have much power. They point out he has confessed, asked for forgiveness, and accepted responsibility for his actions.

The judges go off to deliberate. The tension in the air subsides. During a break, Munyakayanza tells me he's confessed to manning the roadblock and carrying a grenade. And he's confessed to going on an attack where people died. But he says he didn't kill anybody.

"You did not kill anybody?" I ask.

"I didn't kill anybody. I didn't beat anybody. I didn't scare anybody. I didn't even hit anybody with anything," he tells me.

But the judges aren't sure.

When they return, they announce they are postponing the verdict. They want to investigate further. The crowd breaks up. Boys carry away the judges bench. Then everyone scurries for cover because it's starting to rain.

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