Rwanda on Monday officially closed the “gacaca” community courts, the controversial tribunals both credited with easing tensions and criticised for possible miscarriages of justice.
“Today’s event is not simply to mark the closure of the courts, but also to recognise the enduring value of the process,” President Paul Kagame said at the closing ceremony in Kigali.
“It is a celebration of the restoration of unity and trust among Rwandans, and reaffirmation of our ability to find our own answers to seemingly intractable questions,” he said, according to a presidency statement.
Some 12,100 grass-roots gacaca courts, inspired by onetime village gatherings in which elders would adjudicate disputes, have tried the vast majority of suspects in the 1994 genocide that killed about 800,000 people, mostly ethnic Tutsis.
Since being set up in 2001 the tribunals have tried nearly two million people, convicting 65 percent of them.
The gacaca were introduced to reduce the backlog of genocide cases that threatened to swamp the country’s traditional court system after the weeks-long genocide. They were also meant to foster national reconciliation.
But they had also been criticised, with Human Rights Watch saying last year that violations included “restrictions on the accused’s ability to mount an effective defence; possible miscarriages of justice due to using largely untrained judges; trumped-up charges, some based on the Rwandan government’s wish to silence critics”.
HRW, which monitored the trials since they began, also cited misuse of the trials “to settle personal scores; judges’ or officials’ intimidation of defence witnesses; and corruption by judges and parties to cases”.
The group said however that the system’s achievements included “swift trials with popular participation, a reduction in the prison population, a better understanding of what happened in 1994” and helped with localting bodies of citims and “a possible asing of ethnic tensions”.
Kagame defended the tribunals at Monday’s ceremony.
“We had three choices: first was the more dangerous path of revenge, or secondly, grant general amnesty, both of which would have led to further anarchy and destruction,” he said.
“But we chose the third and more difficult course of dealing with the matter decisively and restoring the unity and integrity of the nation.”
“It received criticism both from within and outside Rwanda, yet those criticizing offered no viable alternatives that could deliver the results we needed.”
The official close of the courts had been repeatedly pushed back.
The suspected masterminds of the genocide have been tried in the International Criminal Court for Rwanda (ICTR) in the north Tanzanian town of Arusha.
Other Rwandan officials, whose cases were not deemed serious enough for the ICTR, were for some years tried only in Rwanda’s traditional court system. An amendment to the law allowed them to also be tried in the gacaca.
*Courtesy of AFP