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Kigali, January 4th 2007 (FH) – It has taken years and years of negotiations and several amendments to the law and to other legal texts for Rwandan gacaca courts, in charge of trying the majority of suspects of the 1994 genocide, to start operating six months ago on a national level. In August 1996, that is two years after the end of the genocide, Rwanda equipped itself with an organic law punishing the crimes of genocide and other crimes against humanity committed in the country between October 1st 1990 and December 31st 1994. This law provided each first instance court with a « special chamber » for the trials of genocide suspects that opened at the end of that same year. At the time, some 120.000 prisoners were rotting in Rwandan jails and waiting for their trials to begin, not to mention the suspects living freely in their villages. In spite of the support of organizations such as Attorneys Without Border (AWB) or the Citizens Network (CN), only two years later did the authorities realize, after having conducted their first assessment, that it would take conventional tribunals more than a century to deal with all the cases. Then, under the presidency of the Republic, interdisciplinary discussions opened from which stemmed the idea to relaunch gacaca courts. During these village assemblies, the wise would settle disputes whilst sitting on the grass (agacaca, in Rwandan). This raised several objections. Certain elders stressed that the Rwandan gacaca courts of olden days used to not dealing with cases as serious as those pertaining to the genocide. Others wondered what role women would have, knowing that they were not admitted to sit in gacaca courts. After strenuous negotiations, the organic law on gacaca jurisdictions was ratified in January 2001. The text established four levels of gacaca (cell, sector, district, province) in accordance to the administrative structure of the time. Suspects were also divided into four categories. Each tribunal comprised 19 judges. But this was leaving reality aside. In June 2004, a new organic law was voted which reduced the panel of judges to 9 after problems had been observed. Other amendment: only gacaca courts of cell and gacaca courts of sector remained. Gacaca courts of sector disposed of both a first instance court and a court of appeal. The number of categories of suspects also went down from 4 to 3. Both the first and the second laws stress the obligation of all citizens to testify about what they have seen or heard, lest they should face sanctions. They also put the emphasis on guilty plea, the core measure of the gacaca system. Besides these two laws, several presidential decrees have been issued to make clearer certain points pertaining to the gacaca process. The gacaca system is criticized by certain international organizations for the defense of human rights, notably because the elected judges are laymen and are not remunerated. Furthermore, avowals leading to mitigations of punishment are at the origin of mistakes that are stigmatized. The Rwandan government justifies the system by saying that it is a « Rwandan solution to a Rwandan issue » and dares anyone to find a better answer. ER/PB/GF © Hirondelle News Agency