Community service for tens of thousands of genocidaires

At least 55,000 people convicted of taking part in the 1994 genocide in Rwanda are likely to be sentenced to community service instead of prison, an official with Rwanda's home-grown justice system, known as 'gacaca', said.

"They will contribute to building infrastructure in the country as well as reconciliation so that victims can eventually live next to them again," Emanuel Twagirumukiza, the executive secretary of the community service programme, known by the French acronym TIG (Travaux d’Intérêt Général), told IRIN on Wednesday at his office in the capital, Kigali.

The gacaca courts have investigated 700,000 suspects since they were established in 2001. The current final phase of trying to re-integrate the 'genocidaires' began on 11 September.

Community service includes digging stone quarries, building houses for the poor, tree planting and farming. Twagirumukiza said the sentence also required genocidaires to undergo civic and human-rights education and to learn Rwandan history.

"It is the first step in helping them acquire new skills to facilitate their social reintegration," he added.

A group of people performing community service 50 km south of Kigali at the village of Nteko said they were happy to be able to atone for their crimes.

"I was caught up in a mistake of history," said Augustine Bizimana, as he crushed stones to pave a road. He was sentenced to four years’ community service.

However, many genocide survivors consider such sentences as too lenient. "It is outrageous to punish their crimes by simply getting them to crush stones or build a house," said Sylvie Mutesi, whose parents and four brothers were killed in front of her by Hutu militias, known as the Interahamwe. She was raped and infected with HIV.

According to Rwandan government figures, 937,000 Tutsis and politically moderate Hutus were killed during the 100-day-long genocide.

"It would be less insulting for us if they were just granted their freedom," she said.

The Rwandan justice system is handing down steep prison sentences for genocidaires found guilty of having incited or led the massacre. Twagirumukiza said: "We are trying to take a balanced approach."

"With our country's macabre past, we have to recognise that some of those who committed atrocities did so because they were pushed into it by their superiors. Some have confessed and have even given us vital evidence," he added.

In January 2001, the government began releasing thousands of suspected genocidaires, who acknowledged their crimes and agreed to testify before the gacaca courts.

Another consideration is the huge prison population in Rwanda, which Twagirumukiza said cost the country almost 4.6 billion Rwandan francs (US $8.7 million) a year.

"Community service is a better alternative," he said.