(RUBILIZI, Rwanda) Inside the beaten-up shell of a building wrecked during Rwanda’s genocide, a local man rises nervously to address the village court.
He points at another villager, sitting with a group on wooden benches, and declares that the man had incited soldiers to rape a girl during the 1994 atrocities.
No sooner does he finish speaking than a woman in a headscarf speaks up, saying that she had seen the accuser looting the home of a genocide victim. He snaps back that she could know this only if she had taken part in the looting herself.
In the hamlet of Rubilizi, 20 miles outside the capital, Kigali, the true story of the genocide is in danger of becoming blurred by rumour and recrimination, as it is in so many communities in Rwanda.
Human rights groups claim that the village courts, set up in 2001 to deal with a crippling backlog of genocide cases, are being hijacked by villagers using the pretence of genocide allegations to settle land disputes and family feuds.
In the country’s Gikongoro province, a genocide suspect was brought to trial recently for raping a woman who, it later emerged, had falsely accused him because he owed her family money.
Known as gacaca – the Rwandan word for the grass on which many of these hearings take place outdoors – the courts combine traditional tribal practices with modern legal concepts.
Presided over by elected “wise persons”, no defence lawyers or prosecutors are allowed to take part in the hearings. Instead, the public can interrupt, either for or against the accused. Nevertheless, the judges, often relatives of suspects or victims, can hand down sentences of up to 30 years.
“Given the very basic legal background the judges have, and the enormous pressure they are under to get this process finished, the chances to abuse the system are very high,” said Hugo Jombwe-Moudiki, the head of mission in Rwanda for Lawyers Without Borders, the Belgian human rights group. With fewer than 13,000 people tried, out of an estimated 750,000 suspects, the government is pushing for results from the country’s 10,000 gacaca courts, which have been working only in a limited way but are about to operate fully nationwide.
In an effort to speed up the process, the government announced recently that it was planning to give the gacaca jurisdiction to try “category one” suspects, which include those involved in orchestrating the genocide.
The change in the law would give village judges the power to hand down the death sentence and has led to protests from Belgium – the former colonial power – and other European donor governments. A final decision on the law is expected soon.
“Victims want to see justice done,” said Mr Jombwe-Moudiki. “But if you force unprofessional judges to come up with results no matter what, it’s going to lead to the kind of mayhem we are already starting to see.”
Controversy over the possible use of the death sentence by gacaca judges has also stalled the progress of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. The main suspects – those accused of masterminding the killing – are on trial in the neighbouring Tanzanian town of Arusha.
Since it was set up in 1994, the United Nations-mandated court has convicted just 20 people and acquitted three, but requests to transfer some of the trials to Rwanda to speed up the process have met opposition from defence lawyers who want immunity from the death sentence for their clients.
The gacaca courts have also been blamed for helping stir up the kind of ethnic tensions that fuelled the genocide, in which an estimated one million ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slaughtered in a three-month killing spree presided over by an extremist Hutu government.
There have been widespread reports of survivors being murdered to prevent them giving testimony, while clandestine groups aimed at discouraging Hutus from betraying the “genocidaires” are alleged to be operating in rural areas.
Hutus – the ethnic majority – claim that the courts are heavily influenced by survivors’ groups and are biased because they ignore atrocities committed by the Tutsi rebel army, which took power after the genocide.
With a national period of mourning beginning last week to mark the 12th anniversary of the genocide, many Rwandans are keen to put the past behind them.
But, with the trial process having barely scratched the surface, and the continuing fascination with Rwanda in the West – shown with the release in Britain, a week ago, of the film, Shooting Dogs, starring John Hurt as a missionary caught up in the genocide – it is likely to be a long time before the ghosts of the past are laid to rest.
First published in London’s The Telegraph newspaper on 9 April, 2006