Rwanda: Gacaca Tribunals Face Uphill Task, Says Lawyers' NGO

Arusha — The Belgian branch of the Lawyers Without Borders (Avocats sans frontières- Belgique - ASF) is of the view that the Gacaca tribunals in Rwanda face an uphill task that could jeopardise the reconciliation process and fight against impunity.

Gacaca was set up to try those presumed responsible for the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.

"It has been noticed in most Gacaca jurisdictions that judges have difficulties in running the trials and asking relevant questions that would help bring out the facts and discern the truth", said a report by ASF which was first made public in February.

Based on the traditional community participatory judicial system, the Gacaca tribunals were set up more than three years ago in order to help ease the conventional courts' heavy burden of trying the numerous genocide cases and to contribute in national reconciliation.

Judges of the tribunals have no professional legal training but are elected from among Inyangamugayo (people of integrity) in the local population. They are given basic training which in most cases lasts for several days.

The report continues that what remains to be seen is whether the judges' hurriedly acquired limited knowledge will permit them to carry out the trials and be able "to know what is true or false".

ASF goes on to say that the difficulties "mostly reside in the judges' limited competences and experience which their goodwill can not compensate yet they have the heavy responsibility of judging crimes against humanity and genocide".

Confessions

Gacaca courts encourage those accused to confess their crimes in order to receive reduced sentences and save time. ASF however regards that confessions alone are not enough to establish a suspects' guilt since he is considered guilty until proven otherwise.

The report points out at several defects which taint confessions and further complicates the work of judges which bases on the information to decide on the fate of the accused.

Among them is that sometimes the accused make partial confessions, admit minor crimes, exonerate other prisoners or people, or accuse dead people or those in exile or those with whom they have a score to settle.

"That kind of information is always questionable and should always be handled with caution" says the report. It denounces the existence "markets for confessions" which lead to corruption "between inside and outside the prisons" where detainees are paid to accuse or exonerate others thereby making it difficult to vouch for the authenticity of the confessions.

Witnesses

The Gacaca tribunals are inspired by the age-old Rwandan custom where the village wise men used to meet, usually sitting in the grass under the shade of a tree, to resolve disputes.

Lawyers Without Borders draw attention to "some kind of weariness that has led to the reduction in numbers of the public in some areas where Gacaca (Kinyarwanda for soft grass or lawn) trials are taking place". It explains that Gacaca proceedings take a lot of the villagers' time whose priority is eking out a living".

Even in places where there is a turn up in large numbers, there is a clear distinction of being present and participating.

"In many proceedings, if there is a large turn out of the population, they appear reluctant to express themselves. The people are not freely or easily given the floor", claims the report.

It continues that the reluctance is largely caused by lack of trust, the need to avoid problems, the refusal to accuse relatives and friends or out of fear of reprisals.

The report then goes on to allege that some jurisdictions will not hesitate to condemn people for false testimony "with neither debate nor trial" has an effect of "inhibiting the testimonies of potential witnesses".

There are over 200,000 Gacaca judges and over 9,000 tribunals all over Rwanda which have judged over 6,000 people.

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