Success and pitfalls of traditional justice as Gacaca courts wind up hearings

Friday June 15 2012

Gacaca judges known as Inyangamugayo listen to witnesses testify against a suspect. Photo/Cyril Ndegeya

Monday, June 18 the National Gacaca Jurisdiction will officially close the Gacaca community courts, 10 years after they were set up to handle hundreds of thousands of genocide cases, trying 1,951,388 by the time of closure.

While the Gacaca courts have achieved a great deal in providing justice, promoting unity and reconciliation, pertinent questions remain as to what will happen after the courts close.

Much as there is a general sense of accomplishment about the legacy of the traditional courts, there is also some discontent about the justice provided by the courts.

READ: Lessons from Rwanda tribunal, lest we forget

There are also questions as to whether it will be possible to achieve unity and reconciliation under the civil court system, which is set to handle the remaining pending cases from Gacaca courts.

For instance, Ludovico Gatera, a 51 year old resident of Kicukiro, Gahanga, in Kigali, claims that he was detained by the courts for a year and a half, only to be found innocent later.


Mr Gatera was released after he appealed a 10-year sentence he was handed after he was found guilty of conspiracy to murder in 2005 even though there was not enough evidence to implicate him.

“If there was enough time for me to present my defence, perhaps I would have proved myself innocent but there was little time for me to do that. I only managed to do so after a year and a half in prison,” says Mr Gatera, adding that he never received any compensation. He claims he was a victim of mistaken identity.

According to him, there are hundreds of people serving sentence in different prisons across the country who are not happy with the way justice was delivered.

“Of course not all people are innocent, but they feel if there were ample time for proper investigations, they could have been given lesser sentences. But of course, there was little time for proper investigation to be done,” adds Mr Gatera.

According to Janvier Forongo, the executive secretary of Ibuka, the umbrella association of genocide survivors, some survivors are concerned that some genocide perpetrators, in spite of their inhuman crimes, have benefited from lenient sentences including doing communal work outside prison.

Under the Gacaca courts, genocide suspects who voluntarily accepted the crimes they committed received lesser sentences under the Work for General Interest (TIG) programme.

“A big number have defeated the process and fled. At the end of the day, justice is not served,” Mr Forongo says.

However, according to Dr Phil Clark, a researcher with the London-based African Research Institute (ARI), the Gacaca system defied conventional wisdom about justice and set a new precedent on how justice can be delivered, challenging all known scholarly systems.

The scholar, who has authored several publications on the Rwandan genocide and Gacaca, says that despite a number of shortfalls, the traditional courts contributed greatly to the healing and rebuilding of Rwanda and this should be the most important aspect.

Prof Clark asserts that other societies confronting the aftermath of such a national tragedy can learn much from the achievements of Gacaca – as well as its flaws and pitfalls.

“There are serious questions we must ask about the appropriate responses to mass conflict,” said the scholar at the launch of the report titled How Rwanda judged its genocide.

“Critics of Gacaca have been vociferous since day one.” But critics have ignored one of its greatest assets, namely that Rwandans have been able to talk about the genocide, and its impact, on their own terms, in a language that is familiar to them,” he added.
The courts have tried close to two million cases in less than a decade on a budget of Rwf30 billion ($40 million ), fraction of the $1 billion budget the Arusha-based International Criminal Tribunal of Rwanda (ICTR) has used to try 69 cases.

Domitille Mukantaganzwa, the executive secretary of the National Gacaca Jurisdiction, says the pending cases from the Gacaca courts will be tried by civil courts.

The majority of the pending cases are appeals against decisions made by the courts.

“The remaining cases are complicated and we believe they can be settled in civil courts. It is everyone’s right to appeal. Normal procedures will be followed,” says Ms Mukantaganzwa.

A total of 1,951,388 cases were handled in four categories.

Among these, 31,453 were category one cases. Category one is of people who committed very serious crimes — 79 per cent were convicted while 21 per cent were cleared of any charges.

Category two had 649,599 people; 67 per cent were convicted and sentenced while 33 per cent were found to be innocent while category three, which has the biggest number of people, had 1,270,336 cases tried since the courts started work in 2002; 96 per cent of those were found guilty and convicted while only 4 per cent were cleared.

The last category contained people who raided and ransacked homes of Tutsis during massacres while the other two categories contain people who directly or indirectly participated in or organised the killings.

However, a report released by Human Rights Watch last year on the closure of the Gacaca courts revealed that that the Gacaca jurisdiction convicted some innocent people.

HRW attributed it to lack of qualified lawyers and judges, some people used the process to settle personal vendettas.