Kigali, 13 December 2007 (FH) - The executive secretary of the National Service of Gacaca Courts (SNJG), Domitille Mukantaganzwa, assured, during a press conference Wednesday in Kigali, that defence rights are guaranteed before these courts, even if the system does not call upon lawyers.

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Silent on the subject, the organic law on the gacaca (pronounced gatchatcha) courts, charged with trying the majority of the alleged authors of the 1994 genocide, does not prohibit nor recognize the contribution of defence counsels. "Defence rights are guaranteed by the gacaca courts insofar as any person who wishes to speak in favour of a defendant has the right to do so", explained Mrs. Mukantaganzwa.

"Actually before the gacacas, the defendant is defended by more than one lawyer", she said; inviting his fellow citizens not to nourish from a "complex of inferiority" compared to the Western model of defence rights. She nevertheless admitted that law specialists can intervene in a procedure before a gacaca court, but "without gowns, without criminal code in hand, as do other Rwandans". "That already happened in other cases", she underlined.

Certain observers fear that the traditional set up and the imposing presence of a lawyer would intimidate the gacaca judges, who are not lawyers but people with integrity chosen from within their community. Only the national colors that they wear on their "Sunday clothes" distinguish them, during hearings, from the remainder of the population.

Initially opened as a few pilot courts, the gacaca trials entered their national phase in July 2006. At the end of this year, scheduled closing date for the end of these trials, around a million defendants would have appeared before these courts; of which 800 000 would have been tried, according to the SNJG. Certain delays having been noted, extensions are being considered for several regions.

These semi-traditional courts, inspired by former Rwandan village assemblies during which wise men settled disagreements while sitting on the grass (gacaca, in Rwandan language) can sentence up to life in prison.

© Hirondelle News Agency