KIGALI - The Government has strongly expressed its “disappointment” over a report on the Gacaca Traditional Courts, released yesterday by Human Rights Watch (HRW), describing it as “misleading.”
Reacting to the report titled “Rwanda: Justice Compromised: The Legacy of Rwanda’s community-based Gacaca Courts”, the Minister of Justice Tharcisse Karugarama accused HRW of “titling” the report to distort the image and achievements of Gacaca Courts.
“It is a great shame that Human Rights Watch has chosen yet again to chase headlines with its choice of title for today’s report about Gacaca rather than reflect the truth,” Karugarama said after the report was launched in Kigali yesterday.
“This title distorts the image of Gacaca and gives a misleading impression of the report’s actual content”.
Karugarama said that Gacaca reflects a justice sector that is inherently unique, a fact which HRW acknowledges itself in the report, that 1.2 million people have benefited from the Gacaca process, but at the same time goes on to contradict itself.
“It (HRW) recognises the enormous challenges the government faced after the Genocide in processing the large number of cases, noting that ‘the challenge would have overwhelmed even the world’s most advanced justice system,” Karugarama said.
“Despite this, Human Rights Watch has chosen to base its verdict of Gacaca by citing a handful of cases which went wrong and then implying that the whole 1.2 million can be assessed in the same light,”
“This is unwarranted and makes a mockery of the efforts of all Rwandans who are working together to promote justice and reconciliation,” he added.
The 144-page report alleges that Gacaca Courts denied victims fair trial and that it failed to provide credible solutions and justice in some cases, which means that the courts could live behind a bad legacy.
While launching the report yesterday, in a tightly controlled press conference, where recording was barred, Leslie Haskell, a researcher at the HRW Africa Division and author of the report, said that the traditional courts indeed achieved a lot but left a lot to be desired.
“Despite the recognition of the success, the report dwells more on the failures and weaknesses based on the 350 cases the rights watchdog observed, but the Government of Rwanda insists the report was “imbalanced and unfair,”.
Minister Karugarama said that said that since its introduction, Gacaca has brought together relatives of Genocide suspects to sit side by side with survivors and judge fairly those who committed these crimes, but HRW disregards those facts.
The Dutch Ambassador to Rwanda, Frans Makken, who attended the press conference, challenged the methodology used by HRW saying that 350 cases which were observed cannot render the over 1.2 million cases “flawed or unfair”.
“350 cases is a small number to base on to come up with a conclusive view on Gacaca compared to the many cases the courts dealt with,” he said.
“The title and timing of the report is not appropriate. It comes at the time when the government has promised to evaluate Gacaca courts and review cases that did not go well. I find it harsh, unfair and imbalanced”.
Makken added that donors, including the Netherlands, monitored and supported the Gacaca process, which proved to be a great success, adding that HRW accusations are unfortunate.
Karugarama, however, said that HRW’s accusations disregard facts because under Gacaca, people were able to receive prison sentences of between five and ten years while life sentences constitute just five to eight percent of verdicts.
Between 25 and 30 percent of cases ended in acquittals, but all these facts that reflect fairness are not considered by the report.
“The community work (TIG) as an alternative to prison has allowed people to live in their homes and carry out their sentences about twice a week, learning to live together and move on,” Karugarama said.
“The Government of Rwanda welcomes constructive criticism as it builds a modern, developed justice system, but reports which mischaracterise Gacaca are not constructive,”
“We call on Human Rights Watch to find a way in future reports to balance informed criticism with a respect for the enormity of the challenges Rwanda faced in the aftermath of the Genocide,” Karugarama further added.
The government said that the country’s choice of Gacaca must be seen in context that after the genocide, the country was shattered and had very few people with a legal training.
Gacaca was a response to this, it allowed everyone an equal platform, ensuring the often intimidating formality of court was bypassed, empowering previously marginalised people, such as women, to play a role in the process and maximising the community’s sense of ownership over the process and its consequences.