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Watchdog criticizes village courts


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Watchdog criticises Rwanda's village courts
HERVE BAR, Agence France Presse  

KIGALI, Aug 23
Rwanda's traditional village courts were widely hailed as a way to close the painful chapter of the 1994 genocide when they were revived in June, but no longer draw the crowds and could even stir up new social tension, observers said.
Penal Reform International (PRI), the only non-governmental organization to keep a close watch on proceedings, said interest has waned seriously in what Rwandans only two months ago praised as a bold initiative to foster reconciliation eight years after one of the bloodiest chapters in Africa's history.
The "gacaca" system of justice once used to settle village disputes had fallen into disuse. But with 104,000 suspects of the mass killings languishing in overcrowded jails, it was reintroduced as a way to ease the huge judicial backlog bogging down mainstream courts. 
"Nearly everywhere, the population and the judges enthusiastically welcomed the start of the gacacas," said a recent report released by the Paris-based PRI.
"The people came in great numbers, showed a lot of interest and a lot of curiosity."
"But this enthusiasm is starting to diminish rapidly, especially when people in the audience started realizing that judges might probe their own pasts," the report said.
Pilot "gacaca" courts began work on June 19 in 12 jurisdictions, one per province. When fully up and running, there will be some 11,000 of the local courts involving more than 250,000 judges in this small central African country.
Based on traditional practices, they use locally elected juries to identify victims and alleged perpetrators, hear testimony from both sides, then hand down judgement on the suspect. A suspect's public confession and repentence are at the heart of the system, in what theoretically opens the way for an early release.
In June, President Paul Kagama forecast that gacacas would show "the ability of the large family of Rwanda to find for itself a solution to its own problems."
The 100 days of terror that claimed up to one million lives when the Hutu majority turned against the Tutsi minority and moderate Hutus left a country haunted by trauma.
Survivors need to see the guilty -- many still living freely -- punished and "classic justice cannot achieve this," said Kagame.
Gacacas, he said, would "make the truth known, accelerate judgement, eradicate the culture of impunity and reconcile the people of Rwanda."But not everyone has a vested interest in the truth, according to the PRI report.
Whereas survivors and families of some prisoners remain enthusiastic,
others who took part in the mass killings but remain free are afraid -- and
staying away.
As attendance waned, "force -- sometimes by authorities -- was used
to make people take part in the meetings," according to the PRI. But "this goes
against the spirit of gacacas" and has not helped matters, the report said.
The "confession" stage of the system, which comes before the final,
"trial" state, has also turned out to be problematic in some places.
PRI observers watching gacacas in the southwestern region of
Gikongoro said they were alarmed by the "arrogant" behavior of some prisoners who
"showed not the slightest remorse and... used violent language to try to pressure
victims into granting them an immediate pardon."
"If local authorities in the jurisdictions do not discuss how to deal
with this sort of behavior before the start of the trials... it could trigger
enormous problems... and even add to tension and social trouble," the
PRI said. This was "far from the climate of reconciliation intended" by the
gacaca system, it said.