The Rwandan semi-traditional courts known as Gacaca are intended to try genocide suspects, but they also have other powers.
According to the law which governs Gacaca, these village courts can punish people who refuse to give testimony, who provide false testimony, or who threaten witnesses. Those found guilty face one to three years imprisonment, under Articles 32 and 37.
So far, over seventy people have been charged for such behavior. Some await trial, others have already been sentenced. But is the law fair? Many of those arrested, say it is not.
“These articles should not allow detention without trial. The way these articles are being applied oppresses not only me, but also many other people” says Peter Kanyangira who is serving sentence in Ntsinda prison in eastern Rwanda
Some people agree that they have violated the law, and accept their punishment. Ndabakuranye Shawal was sent to prison by a Gacaca court in Rwamagana for beating and threatening a witness – Bimenyimana Cassim – who named him during testimony. “I did not complain because I knew about the law. I am still serving the punishment under Article 32”, explains Shawal.
Most of the Gacaca witnesses say the law offers them the respect they deserve, but that it must be enforced so as to dissuade people from harassing witnesses.
Benda Abbas is Chairman of the Gacaca court that sentenced Ndabakuranye Shawal for beating a witness. He says articles 32 and 37 lend credibility and gravitas to the Gacaca, and that this is helpful. “The law has boosted the credibility of Gacaca courts”, says Abbas “We do not need respect as such but we would like people to understand what needs to be done”, he explains
Despite the fact that some people are happy with Articles 32 and 37, some Gacaca officials feel the law is still not explicit enough. “ The interpretation of this law is tricky, because it does not provide a clear definition of circumstances under which ‘not testifying’, ‘refusal to testify’ and ‘giving false testimony’ should be punished”, remarks Regis Rukundakuvuga Gacaca Counsellor in the Supreme Court.
Most people accused of breaking the law under articles 32 and 37 seem to feel it needs changing. They don’t like how cases are handled.
Given such diverse opinions and demands, where does Gacaca go from here?
Mr. Rukundakuvuga says the government is considering amendments in the law governing Gacaca. He says the change will not be based on the problems arising from these articles but that will address such issues.
Some people may be keen to see changes to the law governing Gacaca. But would it be enough?
The head of Rwanda ‘s Law Reform Commission, Karugarama Tharcise says more changes may be required. “ You never know how a law will work, or problems it may pose, until the law is in effect. The thing about legislation is that it’s an evolving process”, he says.
The concept of justice is often compared to a set of weighing scales, where balance is the objective.
In Rwanda , lawmakers are trying to balance the natural evolution of law with the urgent demand for a system of jurisprudence which will help reconcile a post-genocide society.
Getting the balance right is essential, but it may not be easy.