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Tuesday, 18 June, 2002, 10:31 GMT 11:31 UK
Q&A: Justice in Rwanda

Q: What is the Gacaca system being introduced in Rwanda this week?

It is a locally-based system of justice developed by the Rwandan government to try to cope with the thousands of genocide suspects still being held without trial - eight years after the genocide in Rwanda.

The word "gacaca" refers to the small lawn where elders in a village would congregate to solve disputes.

The primary objectives of the new system are to bring an end to the drawn out and painful process of trying genocide suspects, to bring about national reconciliation and to help speed the healing of the mental wounds of the survivors and the families of those who were killed.

Gacaca is the Kinyarwanda word for grass and the courts have been developed from traditional forms of resolving family and community conflicts.

The judges in the courts, elected on a local basis in October 2001, come from among the local communities and will deliberate on the cases of suspected involvement in genocide from their own areas.

Q: How will the system work ?

Genocide suspects being held in prison will be taken to the areas where they are suspected of having taken part in the attempted genocide.

Local prosecutors will present the charges and the elected judges will decide on the guilt or innocence of the accused. Suspects can confess to crimes they have committed, plead guilty and receive reduced sentences.

The courts will not try those suspected of initiating or planning the 1994 genocide (they are being tried by the UN-created International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in Arusha, Tanzania, or by the formal Rwandan justice system).

Those accused of killings, violence, being accomplices to genocide or looting will tried. A person found guilty of murder could receive a sentence of six years in prison followed by community service. This means that some of those held in prison since the 1994 genocide could be released immediately even if found guilty.

Q: How many people are awaiting trial?

There are at least 115,000 suspects being held in overcrowded and unsanitary jails in Rwanda.

The Rwandan Justice Ministry has been trying to bring their cases before the existing court system but progress has been slow and the ministry has said it could take 100 years to try all the suspects being held.

The International Court in Arusha is trying 50 cases of those accused of planning or organising the genocide.

Rwandan President Paul Kagame has told the BBC that Rwanda needs a more rapid solution than the Rwandan and International courts can provide. The gacaca system has been set up to achieve this.

Q: Will the courts be fair ?

The courts will each have 19 judges. They are not legally qualified but were elected by Rwandans registered to vote in October 2001.

An estimated 90% of the electorate cast their votes, the majority in favour of the system. Judges had to be known for their honesty, good conduct and integrity and be free of any suspicion of involvement in genocide, according to the Rwandan Justice Ministry.

They have received training in the operation of the courts since their election. The accused will not have legal representation but can present their own cases. Criticism of the courts has come from the Rwandan Organisation the Rally for the Return of Refugees and Democracy in Rwanda. It has called the gacaca courts "mob justice".

The independent human rights watchdog, Human Rights Watch, has noted the flaws in the gacaca system but has concluded that it is the only hope for dealing with the mass of suspects.

Surveys by foreign legal experts have revealed that some Rwandans fear that the courts will bring to the surface old fears and hatreds and that there is a danger of intimidation of witnesses.

President Kagame told the BBC's East Africa correspondent Ishbel Matheson that the system has flaws and there is the possibility of intimidation, but he said that even the International Court in Arusha had had to deal with the intimidation of witnesses.

Q: How long will the process continue?

President Kagame says it could take five years to process most of the cases because of the huge backlog.

There are 11,000 courts across the country to deal with at least 115,000 cases and it is impossible to estimate how long each case will take.

President Kagame has said that this is an experiment that will be reviewed if it does not appear to be working.

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