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HRW: Rwanda community genocide courts fail to provide justice

Rwandan gacaca courts [official website; BBC backgrounder] have carried out flawed trials for crimes committed during the country's 1994 genocide [BBC backgrounder; JURIST news archive], according to a report [materials] released Tuesday by Human Rights Watch (HRW) [advocacy website]. The gacaca courts were established by the Rwandan government in 2001 to reduce the caseload in the country's traditional justice system. The accused are taken to the villages where they allegedly committed their crimes, and the trials are carried on in a more informal manner with a goal of providing swift trials with community participation. The report cites many instances of fair trial violations, including defense witness intimidation, bribery, untrained judges, embellishment of charges and various restrictions that prevent an accused from effectively defending himself. HRW also faults the Rwandan government for preventing soldiers from the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) [HRW backgrounder], the country's current ruling party, from standing trial and for transferring rape cases to gacaca courts, which opened up the cases to the entire community and stripped victims of privacy that they would have enjoyed in the conventional court system. HRW argues that instances of fair trial violations and other miscarriages of justice should be reviewed by professional judges in the conventional court system, rather than in the gacaca courts:

If gacaca courts review alleged miscarriages of justice, there is a risk of repeating some of the same problems. Instead, the government should ensure the formal justice system reviews these cases in a professional, fair, and impartial way. This would help secure gacaca's legacy and strengthen Rwanda's justice system for generations to come.
Rwanda has more than 12,000 gacaca courts that have tried 1.2 million cases since 2005. The Rwandan government originally scheduled the gacaca courts to finish hearing trials in mid-2010, but that was postponed. The courts are officially set to close by December 2011.

Higher-level cases related to the 1994 genocide have been tried in the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) [official website], a creation of the UN Security Council. Last month, the ICTR convicted former Rwandan army chief [JURIST report] Augustin Bizimungu and three others for their involvement in the 1994 genocide. Bizimungu was found guilty of six counts of genocide and crimes against humanity for murder, extermination and rape in addition to violations of Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions [text]. Bizimungu ordered soldiers and policemen to exterminate [HRW report] tens of thousands of Tutsi civilians who had taken refuge in churches, hospitals and schools during the genocide. In March, the ICTR sentenced [JURIST report] Jean-Baptiste Gatete, the former mayor of the Murambi Commune in Byumna prefecture, to life imprisonment after he was convicted on charges of genocide, complicity in genocide, conspiracy to commit genocide and crimes against humanity of extermination, murder, and rape. Gatete was found to have murdered and carried out orders to rape and murder thousand of Tutsi citizens. An estimated total of 800,000 people were killed during the genocide that took place in the span of 100 days.

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