Trials for Rwanda Genocide to Open


Basahili Ngiruswonsanga says he is innocent of committing genocide in 1994. But he is scared to leave his newly reclaimed house in case his neighbors believe otherwise.

Like 500,000 other Hutu refugees, he returned to Rwanda with some trepidation last week from Zaire - where he had fled 2-1/2 years ago, fearing reprisals from Tutsis who took power after they were nearly wiped out in ethnic cleansing.

Now Mr. Ngiruswonsanga is back home, praying he will be left alone as demands for retribution grow louder outside his door. "I'm nervous the soldiers will come for me," he says, glancing out a window. "We returnees feel under suspicion."

Ngiruswonsanga is not alone in worrying about whether justice will prevail. The refugees' return will test the government's claim that it wants to promote reconciliation - while satisfying calls for justice.

It is not easy for survivors to forget the slaughter of up to 1 million people in April 1994 by the then-Hutu government. Across Rwanda, villagers like Eugene Sebuhamure scrutinize returnees' faces, looking for the killers and the accomplices who did not stop them. "To forgive is impossible," he says, looking at a line of refugees with bundles on their heads returning to this town. "But maybe it is possible to pardon. Justice must be done."

The return of the refugees has increased pressure on the government to finally crank into action a judicial system that has been inoperational since it came to power in July 1994.

So far no one has been tried for the genocide. Over 87,600 suspected genocide perpetrators are languishing in 208 detention centers that are so overcrowded people have suffocated. Their numbers are expected to swell with some of the refugees who have returned home.

Rwanda didn't even have a genocide law until Sept. 1, when it created one with four categories of punishment, including death for the planners of the genocide.

Legal experts say that even if the trials start as planned next month, the caseload is overwhelming for Rwanda's 300 prosecutors, 12 of whom are legally qualified.

"Historically, no country in the world has had to try offenders on so large a scale," says Simon Munzu, head of the legal unit at the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Rwanda.

"It would be difficult for any country to take on such a burden," he adds.

No one knows exactly how many returnees have been detained so far. By the start of this week, UN human rights monitors reported limited intimidation of returnees, 17 arrests, and 30 house detentions - most of them people who turned themselves in for their own protection.

But the monitors expect more harassment of returnees, as well as increased killings of genocide survivors as former soldiers and militiamen fearing implication come home. This year, 149 genocide witnesses have been killed by suspected supporters of the former regime.

Gerard Ntashamaje, director general of the Justice Ministry, told the Monitor the trials would begin next month as planned.

He says sentences for lesser offenses would be softened with guilty pleas, and that well under 1,000 people would be executed. "It is not in our interests to kill people," he says. "[But] if you want reconciliation, you must have justice. Survivors ... want these people to be tried."

Mr. Ntashamaje predicts the process will last five to seven years - a huge drain on resources for a poor country.

This burden has prompted observers to question whether money is being wasted on a parallel tribunal in Arusha, Tanzania, which will try only a handful of people and has made little progress so far.

Meanwhile, the prisons are stuffed well beyond the coping point, says Laura O'Mahony of the International Committee of the Red Cross. Kigali central prison is among the worst, housing 8,700 inmates - five times its capacity. They take turns sleeping in cramped wooden cubicles, waiting in a reeking purgatory for their day in court.

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