On 10th March, 2005, Rwanda’s traditional village courts, known as Gacaca started judging genocide cases, in many parts of the country.
One hundred and fifty cases were heard on the first day. From these, thirty four sentences were handed down, the highest being 30 years in jail. That’s the maximum sentence Gacaca can impose on people it convicts. Some of it may be served outside prison, in community service.
The lowest sentence was one year in jail, which was handed down in Byumba province, northern Rwanda.
Minister of Justice Edda Mukabagwiza attended the first Gacaca trial at Busanza sector, in Kigali. “This being the first case, it has been evident that the judges are committed. They have studied well the case they dealt with today as required”, she says.
Similar appraisals were also shared by the Executive Secretary of the Gacaca courts Mukantaganzwa Domitilla. “We have reports that the local judges conducted the cases very well in accordance with the law and in respect of the rights of the suspects and of the people who participated in the sessions,” said the Gacaca official.
In 2001, the Rwandan government authorized Gacaca courts to do this work, to help speed up justice, peace and reconciliation. Some estimated that ordinary courts would take 100 years to try all those suspected of involvement in genocide. Gacaca seemed an ideal, swifter solution.
Local ‘people of integrity’ were trained and appointed as Gacaca officials, and as judges. Umuziga Agnes, Chairperson of Busanza Gacaca court is one of them.
“This is the first case our court has judged in this sector” she comments “but we have an impression that we are going to manage our assignment,” she concludes.
The Busanza Gacaca court handled a case of someone who confessed to his crimes. Confessions make the work much easier and faster. But not everyone is willing to get involved.
Some people have fled their home villages, rather than participate in Gacaca. Will this undermine the legal process?
“There is not a big number of people that is escaping from Gacaca. We do not yet have the exact number but it is not in any way upsetting the functioning of the Gacaca courts,” says Edda Mukabagwiza, Minister of Justice.
Gacaca courts have the legal power to summon any Rwandan to answer questions. This law covers all citizens, even senior government leaders.
Prime Minister, Bernard Makuza appeared before a local Gacaca court in the Nyakabanda area of Kigali to testify about the genocide. He said he wanted to contribute to the legal process.
From 1990 until the end of genocide, Bernard Makuza lived in this village with his family. He was working with the National Transport Company, known as ONATRACOM.
Shortly before the genocide, Makuza changed his job to work as a Legal Advisor to the then-Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana.
Giving testimony at Gacaca, Mr. Makuza said his life was in danger during the genocide because the killers kept coming to his house to look for him. He was hiding in the ceiling board of his house
According to Mr. Makuza, at some point, the infamous Radio Milles Collines announced that some people were hiding above ceiling boards. Fearing discovery, he came out of hiding but was soon seized by militia, who took him away for execution. He survived.
“That time they never killed me. I came back” he narrates, “Then, the neighbors told me that it was dangerous for me to stay in the house. They advised me to stay with them where they were gathered in the neighborhood.”
Prime Minister Makuza is expected to conclude his testimony in the next few months.
The participation of senior politicians in the Gacaca process is intended to send a clear message to all citizens: ‘Gacaca needs you’.
But will their example encourage those who fear Gacaca? Will it persuade people not to run away?
Gacaca officials say it is important that people understand and embrace the real purpose of the courts, rather than simply turning up because they feel coerced by law to participate.
“Gacaca comes as a solution so that we are able to confess what we did to express to the victims that we are sorry for we did and to ask for forgiveness”, explains Domitilla Mukantaganzwa Executive Secretary of the Gacaca Courts. “We appeal to all Rwandans to understand it that way; no one should run away from the Gacaca because it poses no threat to the people. We have already committed what we ought to have been afraid of,” she concludes.
Some Gacaca courts started their trials several months earlier than others, and are now at the stage where they can judge suspects and announce sentences. The rest of the Gacaca courts in Rwanda are still gathering information about what happened during the genocide. Their judgments will come in time.
Genocide suspects are divided into categories. Gacaca courts deal with suspects in Category two and Category three, that is those alleged to have killed or looted property during the genocide.
Others, alleged to have organized genocide, or played a prominent role in killing or sexual crimes, are classified as ‘Category one’, and may be tried in the Rwanda’s national courts or at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, in Arusha, Tanzania.