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Rwanda Develops New Court to Address Genocide

In June 2002, the Rwandese government launched, gacaca, a new court system that is meant to address over 100,000 genocide suspects who currently overfill the country’s prisons. These crimes of genocide were committed during the armed conflict of October 1990 through December 1994. The new gacaca tribunals merge customary law practices with a Western, formal court structure. The current Rwandese government decided on a policy of maximal accountability for the crime of genocide and crimes against humanity and the tribunals allow judges to impose sentences as high as life imprisonment.
Arrests and detentions for these offences have, until relatively recently, outpaced releases and trials. There are currently approximately 112,000 Rwandese in the country's overcrowded detention facilities. The conditions in the prisons are considered cruel and inhuman, degrading treatment. Furthermore, there has been little or no judicial investigation of the accusations made against many of the prisoners. It is very unlikely that most of them will have their cases heard by the country's existing, over-burdened ordinary courts which hear on average 1,500 genocide cases a year.
The Gacaca jurisdictions fails to guarantee minimum fair trial standards that are guaranteed in international treaties ratified by the Rwandese government. While the efforts made by the Rwandese government to bring suspects of genocide to trial are admirable, gacaca trials must conform to international standards of fairness so that the government's efforts to end impunity, and the trials themselves, are effective. If justice is not employed, public confidence in the judiciary will not be restored and the government will have lost an opportunity to show its determination to respect human rights. More importantly, those actually guilty of genocide and the other crimes against humanity may escape punishment while innocents suffer.

AI INDEX: AFR 47/007/2002 17 December 2002

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Copyright © Laura Rowe.