Retaliation in Rwanda

RETALIATORY violence has to stop. That's the basic precept for civil-war-torn societies. In Rwanda, retaliation has returned in a none-too-subtle form: the lethal neglect of Hutu prisoners.

The Hutu genocide against the Tutsi in 1994 was staggering. Half a million Tutsis were killed with machetes and knives. The UN's failure to respond with military force was deeply troublesome.

Three wrongs don't make a right. The latest indifference to black-on-black violence is the Tutsi government's mistreatment of 58,000 Hutu suspects, in jails worse than the black hole of Calcutta. Hutus suspected of war crimes should be tried, and upon conviction, severely punished. They shouldn't be killed in detention awaiting trial.

The Red Cross has raised the alarm. Thousands of Hutu inmates have died in the last 15 months from subhuman conditions of confinement, according to a new report by the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva.

In places such as the Gitarama jail, 12 to 15 prisoners are forced into dungeon cells designed for three.

In this concentration, prisoners suffer ill health. Persuading Hutu refugees to leave neighboring Zaire and Tanzania will inevitably fail if they see jail-inflicted death as the invitation.

Amelioration of these ghastly conditions has been blocked by a stubborn local government that wants to prove a point, calling for more general economic aid and quick return of indictments by the UN Ad Hoc War Crimes Tribunal in Arusha, Tanzania.

The humanitarian problem could be quickly fixed at low cost by building secure detention camps with a few bulldozers, lumber, barbed wire, and flood-lights. Disarmed prisoners could be securely detained in a camp-style arrangement, with simple water-supply and sanitation and a shoot-on-sight order for any who try to escape.

The Red Cross, with the UN Department of Humanitarian Affairs and UN Development Program, has put aside concerns about a mission to build a prison camp for 5,000 at Nsinda. An extension of the Gitarama prison yard also has finally opened.

But the Rwandan government, torn between hard-liners and people of conscience, refuses to allow the use of many other available sites. Politicians insist on an 18-foot-high brick wall around each facility - an extraordinarily slow process for which supplies are not available - rather than using effective security perimeters of barbed wire and corrugated iron. They reject any use of temporary facilities. Sites at Ontracon, Byumba, Kibungo, and Butare could take another 7,500 prisoners immediately, if these excuses were retired.

Rwanda has no working courts or available judges. There has been no attempt to process cases administratively. There is a punitive psychology among government hard-liners that prisoners deserve to die, with or without trial.

A slender sign of hope is a Duke Law School professor's proposal to the Rwandan government to use plea-bargaining to weed out less-dangerous prisoners and concentrate on ringleaders. Implementation of plea bargaining would require national legislation.

In Haiti, the Cedras government was properly criticized for dooming prisoners to a devilish national penitentiary. In the Haiti peacekeeping operation, Aristide's democratically elected government, the United States, and other allies have ended lethal overcrowding in the jails.

But so far, Rwanda and the international community have been embarrassingly silent in the new scandal of death without trial.

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