Open Court

7 minute read

In the village of Zivu, nearly everybody has turned out. Several hundred men and women, some carrying babies or minding children, many shading themselves under brightly colored umbrellas, are ranged across a grassy field. Eight people wearing sashes striped in yellow, blue and green — the national colors of Rwanda — sit behind a wooden table. There’s a festive appearance to the proceedings that the words of Augustin Ntirushwamaboko belie. The 38-year-old farmer stands ramrod straight as he describes dragging a Tutsi man from the bushes in Zivu in 1994 and bludgeoning him to death. “When I hit him with the club, he didn’t die,” Ntirushwamaboko explains. “I had an ax. I hit him with the blunt side on his head.”

Ntirushwamaboko is one of up to a million Hutu — one-eighth of this small central African country’s population — who are expected to face trial for the 1994 genocide that wiped out an estimated 800,000 Tutsi, moderate Hutu and political opponents of the former regime. Spectators squatting on a termite mound lean forward as Ntirushwamaboko describes how he and a gang of others corralled and slaughtered a group of Tutsi near the house of his victim, a 29-year-old farmer named Gonzaga Twagiramungu. Among the dead was his victim’s 1-year-old son. “I’m asking for forgiveness from all Rwandans and the government of Rwanda, but most importantly from God, who looks over us all,” Ntirushwamaboko says.

Across the country, thousands of Rwandans are making similar pleas. Last Thursday, nearly 11 years since the genocide, the government launched a massive effort to bring reconciliation to the country, and the perpetrators to justice. 404 Not Found

nginx/1.14.0 (Ubuntu) Over the next few years, trials for around 50,000 suspects accused of the most serious crimes — the planners and leaders of the genocide — will go through Rwanda’s conventional criminal courts. But those accused of murder, violent assault, torture and looting will be tried in nearly 11,000 traditional gacaca courts like the one sitting in judgment on Ntirushwamaboko.

Gacaca (pronounced ga-cha-cha) proceedings, named for the Rwandan word for the grass on which they are traditionally held, employ “people of impeccable integrity” elected by villagers to serve as judge and jury. That means that in Zivu, and in thousands of other villages throughout Rwanda, a genocide carried out by ordinary people — the friends and neighbors of the victims — will be tried by ordinary people: the friends and neighbors of the accused. Witnesses, victims and the accused give sworn testimony in front of judges, who hand out sentences according to national guidelines. “The law will be applied to everybody,” says Domitilla Mukantaganzwa, executive secretary of the National Jurisdiction for Gacaca Services.

Over the past 10 years, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in Arusha, Tanzania, has completed trying just 23 cases of political leaders charged with genocide and crimes against humanity. By some estimates, it would take 100 years for Rwanda’s regular court system to wade through the hundreds of thousands of other crimes — including murder, torture and looting. So the government opted to expedite the process by firing up the gacaca network. In so doing, they have selected a system that is as much about reconciliation as it is about punishment. If suspects confess, they receive lighter sentences and the tribunals use the information to prepare cases against alleged accomplices. Testimony is also used to educate Rwandans about the genocide; many people still don’t have a clear idea of what happened, even in their own villages. “We want to reach reconciliation through justice,” Mukantaganzwa says. “If [suspects] don’t respect life out of love or out of respect for human rights, then they should respect it out of fear of punishment.”

Ntirushwamaboko spent nine years in jail after his arrest for participating in the genocide, before becoming one of the first inmates to confess. He was rewarded with release nearly two years ago, pending trial. “I started realizing that what happened in this country was indeed terrible,” he recalled after his trial, which lasted five hours. “The Bible says, ‘Tell the truth, ask for forgiveness, and then start looking ahead and asking for eternal life.'” Ntirushwamaboko will be sentenced this week. He faces seven to 12 years, but the time served will be taken into account. As a reward for confessing, half his sentence can be spent working three days a week in community service, planting trees or building roads, schools and hospitals nearby.

The gacaca courts focus on local grievances, so property crime cases are also routinely heard. During Ntirushwamaboko’s trial last week, he also described the looting of houses, crops and cattle, and mentioned his accomplices. These episodes roused fierce accusations, too. Murdered family members can’t be replaced; cows and other chattels can. Looters are required to make restitution.

As the winners of the brief civil war that followed the genocide, the current government of Tutsi President Paul Kagame set the terms of the gacaca trials. For many, this type of justice is incomplete. The gacaca courts will not consider accusations against the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). 404 Not Found

nginx/1.14.0 (Ubuntu) Units from the conquering Tutsi rebel army have been accused of brutal revenge killings. The government worries that trying alleged rpf crimes alongside those of people like Ntirushwamaboko will bolster claims that the Tutsi, too, committed genocide. That troubles some outside observers. “If you give justice only to one group of people, I’m not sure that will have a reconciliatory effect,” says Jean-Charles Paras, head of the Rwandan mission for Penal Reform International. “Quite the contrary, actually.”

Another flaw, say critics, is the reliance on confessions. In many cases, the perpetrators are the only living witnesses to their crimes. The promise of a lighter sentence could be an incentive to implicate others, sometimes falsely. And many of the accused admit only to the bare minimum, and incriminate only accomplices who are dead or have fled the country. “I’ve never heard anybody confessing to more than one murder,” says Gabriel Gabiro, a reporter for the Hirondelle news agency, which specializes in human-rights issues. “You’d think nobody in Rwanda killed twice.” Many who confessed — including Ntirushwamaboko — were released pending trial, terrifying the families of their victims. “Some of these people still have the hearts of animals,” says Dusabe Theoneste, 41, a farmer who lost much of his family during the genocide. “They haven’t changed from when they were taken to prison.”

But Ntirushwamaboko’s case shows how the gacaca system could help heal Rwanda. As he accompanies a journalist into the house of Febronia Mukamusoni, the sister of the man he admits to killing, Ntirushwamaboko is greeted with a smile. “Five years ago, if I saw him and I had the means, I would have killed him,” says Mukamusoni, 47. But after hearing him testify during the gacaca court’s discovery phase, which stretched over the last two years, Mukamusoni decided to meet him face to face. “He told me, ‘Look, we did this because we had bad leaders who told us to kill,'” she says. “And he asked for forgiveness.” Mukamusoni cultivates a plot of land near Ntirushwamaboko’s house so the two often see each other.

Mukamusoni lost her parents, two brothers and four nephews and nieces in the genocide. “It’s almost everyone,” she says. Her husband, a Hutu, survived but is currently in jail, accused of participating in the killings. “He denies everything,” she says. “He says he did not kill anyone. But how do I know? Maybe he’s lying.”

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