RWANDA: Traditional courts inauguratedKigali, 24 June 2004 (IRIN) - Rwandan President Paul Kagame launched on Thursday a nationwide traditional court system known as gacaca, to try tens of thousands of people suspected of taking part in the 1994 genocide.
Set up in villages, the courts give citizens, prisoners, and families of victims an opportunity to face each other before a panel of locally elected judges to discuss their roles and experiences during the 100 days of genocide. The judges then issue verdicts.
The launch followed a two-year trial period that was intended to identify and correct weaknesses in the system.
"Drawing from the experience during the trials, we decided to make amendments that aim at checking some weaknesses before the courts are rolled out to the entire the country," Charles
Kayitana, spokesman for the National Service of Gacaca Jurisdictions, told IRIN.
Trial runs of the gacaca courts were conducted in 751 of the nation's 9,010 legal jurisdictions.
During Thursday's launch in the Rwandan capital, Kigali, President Paul Kagame said that his government was absolutely committed to the protection of survivors, many of whom are lead witnesses in the genocide trials.
"I Know witnesses have been intimidated and tortured for revealing the truth, this should stop," he said. "We are going to put in place penalties for those who interfere and try to manipulate gacaca proceedings."
The government said the gacaca trials would be reserved for suspects whose involvement in the killings were considered less serious than those who planned and carried out the genocide. Rwanda’s conventional courts, as well as the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, in Arusha Tanzania, are handling trials of alleged ringleaders.
Gacaca was reintroduced in 2001 to relieve Rwanda's overworked and understaffed conventional courts. There are currently some 80,000 suspects awaiting trial in Rwandan detention facilities. Thousands more are thought to be at large.
On Monday, parliament amended the gacaca law. The amendment decreased the number of judges from 258,209 to 169,400; reduced the number of judges in each courtroom from 19 to nine; and scrapped the highest two levels of the gacaca court system.
Under the new changes the identity of genocide rape victims would be protected, as testimony would be recorded on video camera. It is hoped that the new system will motivate further rape victims to come forward.
During the gacaca trial runs, communities held public meetings to identified victims and name suspects. Nineteen elected gacaca judges evaluated each case to determine the seriousness of the alleged crimes.
Kayitana said the trial runs helped the government determine how many suspects were to be tried under the gacaca judicial system. "For example, in Kigali alone we have over 2,000 suspects who will have to appear before the courts," he told the Associated Press.
Genocide survivors have criticised the gacaca courts for being too lenient and too slow in delivering justice.