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Monday, 25 November, 2002, 12:53 GMT
Rwanda sets up genocide courts
Skulls of massacred Rwandans
Up to 1 million people died in the 1994 genocide

Rwanda is beginning the process of setting up a nationwide system of community courts to try more than 100,000 suspects in the genocide war of the mid-1990s in which up to a million people are believed to have died.

Rwandan radio, reporting on the start of the process, said the trials will help Rwanda to eradicate its culture of denial about the killings and strengthen national unity.

Eight years have passed since the civil war in Rwanda, and yet more than 100,000 people still languish in its prisons suspected of involvement to one degree or another in the 1994 genocide.

Slow

The wheels of justice have been painfully slow, with the international tribunal in Tanzania only dealing with a handful of high profile cases, and Rwanda's court system making little further headway.

Gacaca courts
250,000 new judges
11,000 jurisdictions
115,000 defendants
May impose life sentences
Last June, the authorities began an experiment in 12 villages, setting up a number of community courts that operate along a traditional system dating back to pre-colonial times.

The authorities say community courts, known as gacaca, are being set up nationwide over the next two weeks in more than 100 locations.

They will begin processing the mainly Hutu prisoners from mid-December.

Reservations

However, human rights groups have reservations about the gacaca system, under which panels of "peoples judges" as they are called - with no legal training - are deputised from local communities.

The verdicts are based on eyewitness testimony of local people, and the suspects have no defence lawyer.

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

The system allows courts to lessen sentences for those who confess their crimes, and jail terms can be halved if detainees agree to do community service.

Some, having already spent six years or more in prison, are expected to be allowed to go home.

In the experimental trials that have been taking place, entire communities have often turned out and participated in protracted open-air proceedings.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Helen Vesperini on Focus on Africa
"You have a panel of 19 judges with the villagers sitting around them on the grass"

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FORUM
See also:

18 Jun 02 | Africa
12 Jun 02 | Africa
19 Jun 02 | Africa
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