Arusha — On August 30, 1996 a law was passed in Rwanda to deal with genocide and other crimes against humanity committed in Rwanda between October 1, 1990 and December 31, 1994.
This was followed shortly by holding of a first genocide trial in Rwanda, that of a little known person, Egide Gatanazi, a local leader from a small locality in Kibungo (eastern Rwanda).
His trial opened at the Kibungo Court of First Instance on December 27, 1996 where he was found guilty and sentenced to death in January 1997.
Gatanazi was among 22 people countrywide - including one woman - who were executed by firing squad on April 24, April 1998.
Even though many death sentences have been passed since then, none has been carried out.
Was this first trial fair?
"That man stood trial without the benefit of a lawyer. It was difficult during those days to find a lawyer willing to defend genocide suspect", said a local human rights organisation, Ligue rwandaise pour la promotion et la défense des droits de l'homme (LIPRODHOR).
Even though during the following months suspects were able to access legal aid through the Avocats sans frontiers-ASF(Lawyers without borders) in conjunction with the recently-established Rwandan Bar association, it was not enough.
By 1998, the government was overwhelmed by over 150,000 genocide suspects in its prisons and it realised that conventional court system could not manage. After a round of consultations, the semi-traditional Gacaca courts were born in January 2001.
Gacaca was created as the sixth chamber of the Supreme Court and was based on the testimonies of the local population as well as confessions by guilty parties.
Judges of the Gacaca courts are people with "integrity" elected from among the local population and the tribunal sits once a week in every cell (lowest administrative entity).
For a Gacaca court to be able to sit, a quorum of 100 members of the community, among them 15 judges, had to meet.
This was to become problematic as some of the days chosen coincided with days for working on the farms and therefore the law had to be amended.
The amended Gacaca texts eliminated the need for a quorum, reduced the number of judges to seven, and removed the courts from the Supreme Court and put them under the newly established National Service of Gacaca Jurisdictions (NSGJ).
The first pilot trials under the new banner were held in March 2005 and 6,000 people have been tried since.
The remaining Gacaca courts are still in the pre-trial stage which consists of gathering information on the genocide: listing victims, those who took part in the killings, and the property destroyed.
According to the Executive Secretary of the NSGJ, Domitille Mukantaganzwa, all Gacaca tribunals in the country will kick off at the end of the month after the commemoration of the 12th anniversary of the genocide.