Do you have an idea for The New Times to cover? Submit it here!

Gacaca Courts – Are we at the beginning of the end?

As Gacaca courts prepare to close down their proceedings there is great need to analyse the wrongs and rights, the successes and failures. At the same time, is the time ripe enough to call it quits for Gacaca courts? We certainly need to know that the complexity of Genocide in Rwanda demands it to be handled with a lot of care, and this therefore calls for a revision of deadlines.

As Gacaca courts prepare to close down their proceedings there is great need to analyse the wrongs and rights, the successes and failures. At the same time, is the time ripe enough to call it quits for Gacaca courts? We certainly need to know that the complexity of Genocide in Rwanda demands it to be handled with a lot of care, and this therefore calls for a revision of deadlines.

From the beginning the courts received great criticism from the international community and some individuals went to the extent of calling it gambling with justice, etc.

Nonetheless, the very international community has been trying to borrow the idea so as to try it in other similar circumstances - an indication that their earlier position has since been revised.

acaca courts are home made and are based on typical Rwandan culture, which is why they do not really need trained lawyers. The trained lawyers do not base on the "real norms" of the Rwandan society. They are guided by what the book of laws says. The success of the ill-trained or not trained Gacaca lawyers cannot therefore be overemphasized.

They are the sons and daughters of this particular community in which the crimes occurred and therefore know who is who, not only in the context of crime but also in the context after the crime.

It has therefore been so easy for the Gacaca lawyers to locate and punish génocidaires accordingly. The problems the courts are facing are actually the ones they are fighting. The only people opposing the courts are those who still have the ideology of hatred and therefore do not want to see the Rwandan society heal.

The other great problem has been the work of prisons. Prisoners who have been in jail on suspicion of crimes of Genocide do not seem to come out changed. This is evidenced by their genocide behaviour that is only reminiscent of the one they had before entering prisons. They pose great difficulties to the courts as they hide the truth and do not show any signs of remorse. So a question emerges: Are prisons rehabilitative institutions, hiding places, places that can be used for more politicking or just punitive and isolated areas for criminals?

Lack of constructive activity, proper education and training programmes, result in prisoners returning to the community without being properly rehabilitated. Prison is a punishment but it must also be a route to change criminal behaviour and encourage people to return to a law-abiding life. That is why we witness hundreds of thousands of prisoners being released, only to commit again the very crimes that led them to prison.

On the contrary most prisons are rarely rehabilitative places. Crime victims derive no benefit from this misery. We offer convicts no opportunities to learn compassion or take responsibility for what they have done, or make restitution or offer atonement to their victims in any practical ways.

he truth is, most prison inmates are confused, disorganised, and often pathetic individuals who would love to turn their lives around if given a realistic chance. Unfortunately, many non-violent offenders will no longer be non-violent by the time they leave prison. Prisons are not scaring offenders away from crime; they are incapacitating them so they are hardly fit for anything else.

It’s inconceivable that we routinely dump non-violent offenders into prison cells with violent ones, even in local jails and holding tanks. We mix Genocides with minor criminals who have gone off the law because of reasons that are in most cases not their own making. What are we thinking? Violent prisoners should not be mixed with other prisoners if we have in our mind the question of changing prisoners for the better. For, if you do not separate them, non-violent offenders will turn violent too with time.

We need to offer conflict-resolution training such as the "Alternatives to Violence" programmes currently being conducted by and for convicts around the country. Such training should be required for all prisoners and staff. Prisoners should be taught not through isolation or corporal punishment but through positive psyche setting lessons. Not all prisoners are beyond "repair". Not all prisoners in Rwanda are in prison because of genocide ideology which is why they are supposed to be separated. Changing an ideology is more difficult than changing a behaviour or simple attitude. The vast majority of inmates just want to do their time, improve them in some way, and get out alive and changed. This should be the objective of everybody if we are to make prisons more meaningful and not only primitive punitive institutions.

The whole idea is that prisons activities should be reflective of the whole idea of Gacaca system.The traditional system of Gacaca that existed from the pre-colonial times into the 1990s, was used alongside the formal judicial system at the local level, especially in settling family disputes and minor offences between neighbours. It’s intended primarily to restore social order; traditional Gacaca meted out punishments with the intention of restoring harmony between the community and those responsible for discord. Now resurrected to deal with crimes more serious than those for which it was originally intended, Gacaca courts can only maximize this if prisons aim at restoring its inmates’ hope.

Gacaca encompasses three important features of relevance to broader experiments of reconciliatory justice. First, Gacaca rewards those who confess their crimes with the halving of prison sentences. Second, Gacaca law highlights apologies.  Part of the procedure of the traditional Gacaca system, apology has been maintained in the new variant as an important ingredient to promote reconciliation. Third, reparations to victims are a cornerstone of Gacaca.

International and domestic, retributive and restorative structures are being deployed to address the atrocities of the Genocide.

The problem has always been whether we will know that Gacaca leads to individual and/or national reconciliation?  Concurrent retributive and restorative justice mechanisms provide fruitful material with which to examine the fundamental question of whether restorative justice is merely "second-best."

Assessing this has been a great problem because Genocide convicts have been mixed with other minor offenders and this has rendered the question of punishment troublesome. Not all prisoners do not necessarily need retributive punishment, but agree or not, genocide convicts should be subjected, to some extent, to this form of justice.

Nonetheless, Gacaca is wrongly portrayed by some foreign scholars as a Tutsi thing aimed at collectively punishing the Hutus. These are people who make completely wrong conclusions based on data that is not representative of the Rwandan population at all. Researches therefore, of this nature are not reliable; they are invalid and actually violate important research ethics. Unfortunately when it falls into the ears of those who cannot think critically or those who would like to use it for their own ends, problems arise.

he human psyche intriguing is more complex than the metamorphosing cocoon, and more phenomenal than the human brain could ever imagine.

Human psyche is one of life's most bizarre and unparalleled traits within the physical being. It enables our extrasensory perception, encourages drive and motivation, feeds our emotional balance and at times, permits us to undertake feats that our conscious being would never allow.

The human psyche is nevertheless a frail thing that can be easily shaped into different figures and therefore the mind of hatred can be changed. The way it is shaped therefore determines what you become in future. This again negates mixing high level criminals with other low level criminals.

onvictism in Australia occurred during the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when large numbers of convicts were transported to the various Australian penal colonies by the British government. One of the primary reasons for the British settlement of Australia was the establishment of a penal colony to alleviate pressure on their overburdened correctional facilities. The last convicts to be transported to Australia arrived in Western Australia in 1868.

Sending prisoners to far-off Australia would also make transportation a much harsher punishment. Most slum dwellers in their life never traveled more than 30 miles from where they were born. Sending them to what was then considered the remotest place on Earth, with little likelihood of return, would be a horrific punishment. The government hoped this punishment would strike terror in the hearts of would-be criminals.

Even so, the convicts were not considered slaves or "property." They possessed rights under British law. For example, neither the government nor private masters could physically punish a convict without first getting the approval of a judge at a hearing. But approval was routine.

For Rwanda’s case we should think of a deep island where we can send Genocide criminals so that they are isolated from others. This will not only save us from congested prisons but also stop the negative shaping of the mind of minor criminals.

But all these notwithstanding, are we ready to close the doors of Gacaca courts? I would say NO! There is still some unfinished work that still demands the input of Gacaca. There should be no hurry when restorative justice is on its way. It should be remembered that Genocide took years to be planned and reversing its trend needs more years. The end will justify the means.


Subscribe to The New Times E-Paper

For news tips and story ideas please WhatsApp +250 788 310 999    


Follow The New Times on Google News