The Legacy of Gacaca

Gacaca courts have tried as many as 1,951,388 Genocide suspects over the last decade, an official has said.
Mourners at the Kigali Memorial Centre yesterday. Rwandans are marking a week-long commemoration period, during which many people visit Genocide memorial sites to pay tribute to the victims of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.  The New Times / Timothy
Mourners at the Kigali Memorial Centre yesterday. Rwandans are marking a week-long commemoration period, during which many people visit Genocide memorial sites to pay tribute to the victims of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi. The New Times / Timothy

Gacaca courts have tried as many as 1,951,388 Genocide suspects over the last decade, an official has said.

Domitille Mukantaganzwa, the Executive Secretary of the National Jurisdiction for Gacaca Courts, says the majority of these cases fell in the third category, which involved suspects accused of crimes of relatively lesser magnitude.

“Up to 1,270,336 cases were in the third category, which was composed of people who either looted or destroyed property,” said Mukantaganzwa.

The first category comprised the planners, organisers, instigators, leaders and supervisors of the Genocide, as well as rapists; while the second category included those who participated in physical attacks that resulted into the death of the victim.

Initially, Gacaca courts had no jurisdiction to try first category suspects, but later, in 2009, the law establishing the semi-traditional courts was amended to lift those restrictions.

A total of 1,678,672 suspects were found guilty, while 272,716 were acquitted.

Yet as many as 75, 000 convicts who were convicted in Gacaca courts are still on the run, Mukantaganzwa told The New Times yesterday. “Some were tried and found guilty in absentia, while others escaped in the course of their trial.”

Officials say some of those who escaped had been tried and convicted to carry out community work, known as TIG.

Not everyone who ran away left the country since some of them fled their home areas only to settle in other parts of the country.

It is believed the majority of intra-country fugitives moved to the Eastern Province, which was relatively less populated in the years that followed the Genocide.

Mukantaganzwa said efforts to trace these fugitives have often not succeeded immediately because Imidugudu (communal) settlements were not as established in the east as elsewhere –making it difficult to easily spot strangers.

“However, just like those who escaped to other countries, they should know that time will finally catch up with them. Genocide crimes never expire,” she warned.

In their nearly ten years of operation, Gacaca courts used as a total budget of about Rwf30 billion, according to Mukantaganzwa.

That’s equivalent to about 2.5 per cent of the funds used by the UN International Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) budget, which has handled less than 100 cases in 15 years.

The post-Genocide Government reintroduced Gacaca courts as the most appropriate tool to help clear the backlog of Genocide cases, after it was determined that it would take hundreds of years if the suspects were to be tried in conventional courts.

But Gacaca (lawn in Kinyarwanda), originally a form of Rwandan judicial system, was also designed to help promote reconciliation and establish the whole truth behind the state-sponsored tragedy.

Alongside adopting the semi-traditional courts, which did not allow legal representation, the government also reviewed laws to create incentives for confession.

A suspect who voluntarily owned up to their crimes benefited from a lenient sentence, and served half the remaining term out of prison, carrying out community work.

“Gacaca contributed immensely to national reconciliation, social justice and the reconstruction of the social fabric,” added Mukantaganzwa.

Nonetheless, the system was not short of challenges.

“So many survivors, witnesses as well as judges were intimidated; some were killed, while others suffered from trauma,” according to top Gacaca official.

Carefully selected individuals with a track record of distinguished integrity constituted the panel of Gacaca judges. They received no salary.

Some of the judges would later be linked to corruption, largely emanating from the suspects or their families.

But even as Gacaca courts are expected to officially fold mid this year, there are still many unresolved issues.

Most of them are related to court decisions that are yet to be enforced or were not implemented accordingly.

In particular, survivors say compensation remains one of the issues that need to be addressed.

“There is no justice without compensation; that’s why we consider that a key issue for the government to look into,” Dr Jean Pierre Dusingizemungu, the president of Genocide survivors umbrella, Ibuka, told The New Times.

Considering the magnitude of the Genocide and its devastating consequences, the government has keenly promoted schemes meant to support vulnerable Genocide survivors, as opposed to creating a common compensation funds.

Necessary evil

For instance, the government set up FARG, a fund for disadvantaged survivors, in which it puts a minimum of five per cent of the annual national budget, besides other contributions. The fund has since helped educate thousands of Genocide orphans and constructed houses for vulnerable widows.

Recalling that Ibuka senior leaders held a four-day marathon meeting when the government first floated the idea of Gacaca courts, Dusingizemungu said, from the start, survivors knew receiving justice would require sacrifices.

“We determined that it (Gacaca) was the most ideal way of handling Genocide cases, but also appreciated the fact that we would face difficulties in the process. For instance, many survivors were affected by trauma because a lot of information on how their loved ones were killed was unearthed during trials.

“Nonetheless, I must state it was a necessary evil, because survivors needed to know the whole truth, how their people were killed, who exactly killed them, and about the whereabouts of their remains,” said Dusingizemungu.

He added: “Gacaca testimonies were helpful because we’re to document our history; how the killings were coordinated and executed. It hurts but it’s important that the information came up.”

But he observed that pending court decisions needed to be settled once and for all.

Court bailiffs are the ones primarily charged with enforcing court rulings.

However, according to Mukantaganzwa, some of the decisions, especially those involving large amounts of money, are implemented by executive secretaries at various levels of administration – cell, sector and district.

“Some of these officials are naive to enforce the sentences in a reasonable timeframe,” she added.

Court bailiffs have been on the spot for some time now, with the public accusing them of frustrating court decisions – even those rendered by classic courts.

Nonetheless, Mukantaganzwa said Gacaca will leave a hugely positive legacy, saying it has helped reconcile the perpetrators and victims of the Genocide.

June 18 will be the 10th anniversary of Gacaca courts, and Mukantaganzwa reckons the day will serve two purposes – to celebrate Gacaca achievements and to close the courts officially. Legal experts say Gacaca was a revelation in many ways.

Speaking during an international conference on Genocide, in Kigali, last week, Dr. Phil Clark, a researcher, said even ten years after, the Gacaca system still defies conventional wisdom about justice.

“Gacaca has challenged the scholarly system. It has delivered justice to each and every individual affected by the Genocide, discovered the whole truth about the past, and contributed a lot to the healing process,” he said.

Clark has authored several publications about Gacaca courts, interviewing at least 550 people involved with the Gacaca, in the process.

While the majority of the survivors he interviewed agreed it was not right to imprison everyone who was involved in the Genocide, they also felt that some sentences were far too lenient.

“They also pointed out that their neighbours who participated in the killings were not able to give them a physical compensation...such kind of challenges were always going to be there,” Dr Clark explained.

The idea to introduce the Gacaca judicial system – as a response to the post-Genocide judicial challenges – came up as a result of a series of high-level meetings that were held in Village Urugwiro between 1998 and 99, after it became increasingly clear that these cases could not be handled through classical courts – even for the most developed nations.

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