The Gacaca court is part of a system of community justice inspired by tradition and established in 2001 in Rwanda, in the wake of the 1994 Rwandan Genocide, when between 800,000 and 1,000,000 Rwandans, mostly Tutsi alongside moderate Hutu, were slaughtered. After the Genocide, the new Rwandan Patriotic Front's government struggled with developing just means for the humane detention and prosecution of the more than 100,000 people accused of genocide, war crimes, and related crimes against humanity. By 2000, approximately 120,000 alleged genocidaires were crammed into Rwanda's prisons and communal jails (Reyntjens & Vandeginste 2005, 110). From December 1996 to December 2006, the courts managed to try about 10,000 suspects (Human Rights Watch 2004, 18): at that rate it would take another 110 years to prosecute all the prisoners.
To speed things up, some prisoners were released: In two rounds, in 2004 and 2005, about 50 prisoners were released. In January 2007, another 8,000 prisoners were scheduled for release.
However, the courts needed a more expeditious means of delivering justice. In response, Rwanda implemented the Gacaca court system, which has evolved from traditional cultural communal law enforcement procedures. The Gacaca courts are a method of transitional justice, designed to promote healing and moving on from the crisis. Rwanda has especially focused on criminal prosecutions in the Gacaca courts, putting justice partially into the hands of the victims. However, the system has come under criticism from a number of sources, including the Survivors Fund, which represents survivors of the genocide, due to the danger that it poses to survivors. There has been a number of reports about survivors being targeted for giving evidence at the courts.
Official Objectives of the Gacaca Court System
The "mission" of this system is to achieve "truth, justice, [and] reconciliation." It aims to promote community healing by making the punishment of perpetrators faster and less expensive to the state.
According to the official Rwandan government website of the National Service of Gacaca Jurisdictions, the "Gacaca Courts" system has the following objectives:
- The reconstruction of what happened during the genocide
- The speeding up of the legal proceedings by using as many courts as possible
- The reconciliation of all Rwandans and building their unity
The Supreme Court [of Rwanda] has been endowed with a 6th court called "Gacaca Courts Department" in order to co-ordinate and supervise the activities of the various courts without having to interfere with the decisions that they will have to make [and] in order to keep the national as well as the international community informed about the evolution of the Gacaca Courts' activities.
Since 2002, Gacaca Courts Department was replaced by the National Service of Gacaca Courts so as to coordinate the Gacaca Courts activities and speed up this process. (Introd., National Service of Gacaca Jurisdictions)
There are 8,140 Gacaca courts located throughout the country. In 2002, 746 courts were experimentally established as an attempt to speed up procedures, which is currently in a state of stagnation due to lack of support and constant threats to members of the court.
Tradition of Gacaca
Originally, the Gacaca settled village or familial disputes. The courts were informal means of solving disputes around issues like theft, marital issues, land rights, and property damage. They were constituted as village assemblies, presided by the ancients, where each member of the community could request to speak. The trials were meant to promote reconciliation and justice of the perpetrator in front of family and neighbors.
Well-respected elders, known as Inyangamugayo, were elected based on their honesty by the people of the community. The name gacaca originates from the word umucaca in Kinyarwanda, Rwanda's national language: it can be roughly translated into English as "short, clean cut grass". It is symbolic for a gathering place for elders to sit on and judge the trial. Inyangamugayo would assemble all parties to a crime and mediate a resolution involving reparations or some act of contrition. The Gacaca court is thus a system of grassroots legal bodies inspired by traditional power structures.
In relation to genocide, the Gacaca process provides a basis for settlement; the system emphasizes the importance of accord, condemns the guilty, and promotes collaboration between those deciding as well as among the spectators. In keeping with tradition, villagers elect nine representatives for each Gacaca court to be the judges known as "people of integrity."
How It Works
The Gacaca courts are meant to provide smaller courts to relieve the burden of the larger courts. Criminals are charged with acts against humanity, such as murder and serious assault. These courts are not allowed to try accused rapists, however. The idea is to let the village courts resolve these issues and hopefully provide some reconciliation. The trials are meant to promote reconciliation and justice. The defendant is accused and brought to trial. The trial is held in public, where survivors and the victims' families can confront the accused. The accused confess to their crimes or maintain their innocence. The villagers can either speak for or against the defendant. Since only 5% of the 120,000 imprisoned suspects had been tried as of 2005, the government is hoping the Gacaca courts can both find the guilty and provide reconciliation for those accused. The acquittal rate has been around 20%, questioning whether the accusations are valid 
The current Rwandan Gacaca court system, as established in March 2001, involves both plaintiffs and witnesses in an interactive court proceeding against alleged criminals who took part in the genocide. The judges now qualified as Inyangamugayo, who also have basic judicial training, are among 250,000 individuals elected by Rwandans to serve in the Gacaca courts, which are in charge of judging two (of the three) categories of people accused of implication in the 1994 Rwandan Genocide.
There are three levels of jurisdiction for the Gacaca Courts: the Cell's Gacaca Courts, the Sector's Gacaca Court, and the Sector's Gacaca Courts for Appeal. These are then organized into 3 parts: a general assembly, which collects facts and establishes the lists of victims and perpetrators, among other things; the Bureau of the Gacaca jurisdiction, which is made of 19 members elected by the General Assembly; and the co-ordination committee, which is designed to coordinate the Gacaca Court's activities.
Each gacaca court has nine judges and has the power to sentence criminals up to life imprisonment, but not the death penalty.
According to the Rwandan government's website about Gacaca courts, their activities are organized into 3 steps:
- Collection of information relating to the genocide
- Categorization of persons prosecuted for having committed genocide or having played a role in different genocidal crimes.
- Trial of cases falling under their competence (or jurisdiction).
The first judgment of the operational phase took place on March 11, 2005.
Other forms of justice in Rwanda
|This section's factual accuracy may be compromised due to out-of-date information. (November 2011)|
Another form of justice is the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), an international court established in November 1994 by the United Nations Security Council. The official objectives of this system is to judge the people responsible for the Rwandan genocide and other violations of the international law which took place in Rwanda between 1 January and 31 December 1994. The tribunal is currently located in Arusha, Tanzania.
The tribunal targets genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, which are defined as violations of the Geneva Conventions. Abuse of mass media and involvement with sexual crimes are also brought to justice.
7 trials were completed during the first period (1995–1999) including the former mayor of Taba commune Jean Paul Akayesu and former prime minister Jean Kambanda, both verdicted guilty. During the second period (1999–2003) 14 were put on trial.
The ICTR has set a goal to end all trials by 2008, which is highly unrealistic taking into account their constant lack of resources and funds. Further international support is crucial to complete this task.
Classification of crimes into four categories
The categories were originally created in 1996 by the Act on the Organisation and Pursuits of Crimes against Humanity. The Organic Law 08/96 of August 30, 1996 established the categorization of genocide defendants:
- 1st category
- Planners, organisers, instigators, supervisors of the genocide
- Leaders at the national, provincial or district level, within political parties, army, religious denominations or militia;
- The well-known murderer who distinguished himself because of the zeal which characterised him in the killings or the excessive wickedness with which killings were carried out.
- People who committed rape or acts of sexual torture.
- 2nd category
- Authors, co-authors, accomplices of deliberate homicides, or of serious attacks that caused someone’s death.
- The person who—with intention of killing—caused injuries or committed other serious violence, but without actually
- 3rd category
- The person who committed criminal acts or became accomplice of serious attacks, without the intention of causing death.
- 4th category
- The person having committed offences against property.
- Sentences provided according to the crime category and confession/guilty recognition
- 1st category
- Has not confessed or his/her confession has been rejected—Death sentence or life imprisonment;
- Confession before the publication of his/her name on the list of first category—25 years imprisonment;
- 2nd category
- Has not confessed or his/her confession has been rejected—25 years imprisonment or life imprisonment;
- Confession after accusation and name put on the list made by the Cell's Gacaca Courts—12 to 15 years imprisonment, half of it is spent in prison, the other is commuted to works of public interest;
- Confession before accusation and name put on the list made by the Cell's Gacaca Court—7 to 12 years imprisonment, half of it is spent in prison, the other is commuted to works of public interest;
- 3rd category
- Has not confessed or his/her confession has been rejected—5 to 7 years imprisonment, half of it is spent in prison, the other is commuted to works of public interest;
- Confession before name being put on the list made by the Cell's Gacaca Court—1 to 3 years imprisonment, half of the sentence is served in prison and the rest is commuted to works of public interest;
- 4th category
- Return the stolen things or pay the equivalent.
Gacaca has been implemented in a pilot phase (lasted 18 months) with the Organic Law 40/2000 of 26.01.2001. Organic Law 16/2004 of 19.06.2004 reorganizes Gacaca process. The categories have been reduced to 3: the former categories 2 and 3 were combined to make category 2 and the 4th category became the 3d one.
The first category of alleged criminals (those accused of planning or leading the Genocide and those accused of torture, rape or other sexual crimes) will be (and in some cases already are) prosecuted before State (national) criminal courts. The gacaca do not have jurisdiction over crimes of the first category. The Gacaca courts will adjudicate the two other remaining categories ("simple" murder, bodily injury, property damage), which has started early 2006. Capital punishment was abolished in Rwanda in the summer of 2007.
How defendants were categorized by Gacaca Courts (pilot phase)
- Number of persons categorized: 59,171
- Category 1—6,817 (11.5%)
- Category 2—36,426 (61.6%)
- Category 3—15,928 (26.9%)
There are criticisms and controversy surrounding the decision to implement Gacaca courts. Human rights groups worry about the fairness since trials are held without lawyers which means that there is less protection for defendants than in conventional courts. In addition Conventional trials have seen false accusations and intimidation of witnesses on both sides; issues of revenge have been raised as a concern. The acquittal rate has been 20 percent which suggests a large number of trials were not well-founded. Also because the trials are based on witnesses testimonies, the length of time between the crime and trial heightens the risk that the witnesses' memories will be unreliable.
Senior Human Rights Watch adviser Alison Des Forges said the lack of legal representation was a serious concern. "The authorities' view is that this is a quasi-customary kind of procedure, and there never used to be lawyers, so there's no need for lawyers now. The problem with that is that little is the same except for the name. In this system, there is considerable weight given to the official side. The office of the prosecutor provides considerable assistance to the bench [of judges] in terms of making its determination, so you no longer have a level playing field." There may, however, be no alternative to the Gacaca trials, she added. "Obviously the problem of delivering justice after the genocide is an overwhelming problem. Gacaca may not be ideal but there is at this point no alternative.... The official explanation I think is that people did not speak openly until the Gacaca process and now many more accusations are surfacing. Also, the concession programme, which requires the naming of all those who participated along with the accused [in return for a lighter sentence], has led to a multiplication of names. "How many of these are well-founded, what is the credibility of the evidence, these are very serious concerns."
It has to be noted that with time, some suspects have made enemies during their spell in prisons who they have come out to later accuse not necessarily because they committed crimes but because the accusing parties see them as enemies worth serving longer or similar sentences. Obtaining evidence on this aspect is not easy as witness reports take precedence in most cases.
- Court of law
- Crime against humanity
- Ethnic cleansing
- History of Rwanda
- Politics of Rwanda
- Rwandan Genocide
- Survivors Fund
- International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda
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