Arusha, 3 January 2008 (FH) - As the gacaca courts, charged with trying the grand majority of the presumed authors of the 1994 genocide, are on the point of finishing their work, the government and the survivors draw up a controversial assessment of this legal system inspired by Rwandan tradition.

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To date, approximately a million suspects, a tenth of the Rwandan population, have been brought before these semi-traditional courts; and more than 800 000 of them have been tried, according to the National Service of Gacaca Courts (SNJG), the governmental body charged with supervising and coordinating the activities of these courts.

The Rwandan government had scheduled, as an objective, to finish the gacaca trials by 31 December. The essence of the work has been done, many gacaca courts have been finished for a long time, according to the executive secretary of the SNJG, Mrs. Domitille Mukantaganzwa. Where the need will be felt an additional delay will be granted, she announced.

The quantified assessment leads to the admiration by all observers if it is known that the gacaca judges are volunteers and that it is only in July 2006 that the gacaca trials, initially opened in some pilot courts, entered their national phase of judgments. But, on the quality of the judgments rendered, the evaluation is far from being unanimous.

At the end of an extraordinary congress held at the beginning of the month in Kigali, Ibuka, the main organization of genocide survivors, formulated a string of criticisms. The group denounces "the intimidation of prosecution witnesses, the imprisonment of survivors, the protection of accused intellectuals, wealthy or officials, a great interference by officials of the National Service of Gacaca Courts in the course of the trials (...)many cases of pretences to legal procedures", etc.

According to a participant at this congress, the debate was fierce and the final official statement does not reflect the general tone. However, Ibuka affirms that "the gacaca courts gave only a weak contribution to the reconciliation of Rwandans because there are deep animosities between the prosecution witnesses and the defendants, a certain disappointment, a feeling of despair by the survivors of the genocide who estimate that they did not have the right to the justice they were waiting for".

It did not take more to get him out of his usual reserve, Minister of Justice, Tharcisse Karugarama. "The National Service of Gacaca Courts recorded important achievements of which all Rwandans should be delighted", the minister reacted on the airwaves of Radio Rwanda.

According to him, "those who see things differently are people that are never satisfied". He exhorted Ibuka to "avoid exaggerating" and not to generalize. The Rwandan official rejected the allegations of interference by the authorities in the activities of the gacaca courts. "That is not true, it is not even possible", he affirmed, calling on Ibuka not to dramatize things.

Likewise, the executive secretary of the SNJG expressed her "great astonishment" in a press conference at her offices the following day. After having reassured the genocide survivors, Mrs. Mukantaganzwa also rejected one of the criticisms most often formulated by international human rights organizations: lack of legal aid before these courts which can sentence up to life in prison as they are not presided by professional judges.

"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", reminded Mrs. Mukantaganzwa. "Actually before the gacacas, the defendant is defended by more than one lawyer", she estimated; inviting her fellow-citizens not to nourish on the "complex of inferiority" compared to the Western model of defence rights.

Putting its detractors to the challenge of proposing a better recipe to her, the official discourse in Kigali always explained why the gacaca system is "a typically Rwandan solution to a Rwandan problem".

© Hirondelle News Agency