In a village near to Ruhango town, central Rwanda, community judges examine the case of a stolen cow. Posted on Flickr by The Advocacy Project.
In a few weeks, Rwanda's gacaca courts, set up to process the enormous backlog of war crime cases which resulted from the 1994 genocide, will close their doors. After nine years and over a million gacacas, do Rwandans feel that justice has been served through this unique process?
When Rwanda's judicial arm found itself overladen with so many cases that they said it would take 200 years to process them all, the authorities decided to allow the trials to be held in traditional community courts. An experimental concept for trying alleged war criminals - who have never before been tried in a collaborative court.
Gacacas take place outdoors - the word itself means "grass" in the Kinyarwanda language. The judges are called "people of integrity", and the audience comprises local residents, who, if they wish, can object to proceedings by raising their hand.
The community courts were launched in 2001, and have proved quite a success in terms of keeping Rwanda's prisons from becoming overcrowded - in the gacaca courts, if the accused pleads guilty, then their prison sentence can instead be converted into community service. Owning up to your crime is weighted heavily in reducing your sentence, and attaining forgiveness from the family of your victim even more so.
Human rights organisations such as Amnesty International say that the gacaca courts do not meet international standards for a fair trial; the accused has no legal defence and the local judges are possibly biased. From another standpoint, some survivors of the genocide say that the system doesn't take into account that the massacre of 800,000 Tutsis was something planned rather than impulsive; they fear these kinds of trial don't do proper justice.
Over a million cases were assigned to gacaca courts. They were supposed to have been completed by the end of 2009, a deadline which has since been postponed to February 2010.
“Survivors say it’s possible to forgive the assailants if they ask for forgiveness from the bottom of their hearts”
Anne-Marie de Brouwer is a criminal law professor at the The International Victimology Institute Tilburg in the Netherlands. She specialises in the rights of international victims and wrote the book "The Men Who Killed Me: Rwandan Survivors of Sexual Violence".
I've been to two gacaca trials, in 2006 and 2008, along with a fellow lawyer from Rwanda, [whose husband had been murdered in the genocide]. She was there to bear witness because the alleged killer of her husband was appealing. She had asked me to go because she said she'd feel more reassured. It was hard for her to face all the people there and to give her account - she told me that on previous occasions the attendees had even verbally intimidated her.
A photo of a boy killed in the genocide. The photo was on the ground where the gacaca was taking place. Photo from "The Men Who Killed Me". Credit: Samer Muscati.
The alleged murderer said that he wasn't there when her husband was killed, but that it was the other men implicated that had blamed him. His conviction was quashed, ending his 30-year jail sentence. My colleague was devastated because while she agreed with the verdict, it meant that she didn't know what really happened and was unable to give her husband a proper burial because the whereabouts of his body remained a mystery.
I think that's what most of the survivors are looking for. What was really interesting in that particular case was that a Hutu woman in the crowd stood up and said that she saw the alleged murderer in a car with the victim just before he was killed. For me that demonstrates that the gacacas work - a Hutu woman did not protect the alleged killer, Hutu himself.
One of the "people of integrity", or judges. Photo from "The Men Who Killed Me". Credit: Samer Muscati.
Gacacas involve the local residents; the people who were there when the crime took place, and who more often than not know what happened. Of course the system has its flaws, but in general, I think it does work. Besides, this type of court has existed for centuries in Rwanda. People are familiar with the system. The country is still traumatised, but these courts are seen as the beginning of the reconciliation process.
The five judges in the case of the lawyer's husband. Photo from "The Men Who Killed Me". Credit: Samer Muscati.
Rwandans are not decided on the question of legitimacy of these courts. They understand that for logistical reasons the courts were necessary, but not everyone appreciates them. They say it's become increasingly difficult to stand as a witness because of threats and intimidation.
For survivors of sexual violence, it's even harder than for others. The accused offenders have sometimes taken flight, or can't be identified, or have been killed... And for the victim, it's very difficult to recount the attack in public, whereas they might be able to do it behind closed doors. One rape victim was offered a cow as compensation, and so refused it, because she said that she felt the worth of her life had been reduced to ownership of a cow.
On the other hand, survivors have told me that it is possible to forgive the assailants if they ask for forgiveness from the bottom of their hearts. Rwanda experienced genocide, and now, the country has to rebuild itself and both the former criminals and victims have to live together. It's incredibly difficult. They've accomplished an extraordinary amount in only 15 years."
Promotion for gacaca courts on billboards in Rwanda. Photos posted on Flickr by "Amandagreg670".