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Friday, 5 October, 2001, 13:44 GMT 14:44 UK
Rwandans back people's courts
President Paul Kageme of Rwanda
Kagame (left) admits the system may not be perfect
By Helen Vesperini in Kigali

Voting for new judges for traditional courts in Rwanda has entered the second day on Friday following an enthusiastic response on the opening day.

Schools and offices were closed and there was virtually no traffic on the road as Rwandans from all walks of life choose fellow citizens as judges in the gacaca court system.

Judges at the Rwanda Genocide Tribunal in Arusha
The international tribunal has crawled along at a snail's pace

Gacaca, means justice on the grass.

The 260,000 men and women being elected will be sent to various panels, trained and given the power to judge all but the most serious genocide cases.

Rwanda's prisons have overflowed with suspected killers awaiting trial, since the 1994 genocide when hundreds of thousands of Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed.

Shortcomings

Now, through gacaca the government is trying to bring to justice the estimated 115,000 genocide suspects cramming the country's prisons.

It is also trying to foster national reconciliation between killers and the families of victims.

The voting is due to end on Sunday when it is expected that five levels of judges will have been elected to try the various categories of cases.

But Rwandans from across the social spectrum say they can see that this grassroots system of bringing people to justice has its shortcomings.

President Paul Kagame himself admits this to be the case.

International standards

" The flaw is that we are putting so much in the hands of the public. People have criticised that in terms of otherwise expected international standards of carrying out justice."

"But here, (Rwanda) really, nothing necessarily goes according to the so-called international standards".

A group of returning Rwandans with a BBC crew
The impact of the genocide is still felt in evey community

Mr Kagame said that with all its problems gacaca offers the best alternative for the country's current situation where tens of thousands of genocide suspects risk being in jail without trial for centuries.

He called for the situation in Rwanda to be "weighed against a different scale altogether because we are dealing with all sorts of things of unimaginable proportions".

Limitations

Most people seemed to have a reasonable idea of what was expected of them at the voting station but some had only a vague idea of the scope and limitations of the gacaca courts.

Ordinary Rwandans and human rights groups alike are worried that people won't actually tell the truth before the gacaca courts for fear of reprisals.

But they are conscious that without gacaca, tens of thousands of genocide suspects risk dying in jail before their cases are heard.

Antoine Mugesera, the chairman of the genocide survivors' association, Ibuka, reckons that even if one quarter of the truth of what happened in 1994 could come out in gacaca, it would be a big step forward.

The people of Rwanda for the most part think gacaca should certainly be given a chance.

See also:

03 Sep 01 | Africa
Annan meeting rebels in Kisangani
02 Sep 01 | Africa
Annan preaches peace in DR Congo
03 Aug 01 | Africa
Rwanda 'crushes' Hutu rebels
09 Oct 01 | Europe
Rwanda nuns guilty of genocide
17 Jul 00 | Africa
Rwanda counts its dead
22 Jan 00 | Africa
Rwanda updates genocide list
04 Oct 01 | Africa
Rwanda speeds up genocide trials
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