A new crisis has been sparked in Rwanda's jails by the mass return of hundreds of thousands of Hutu refugees from exile in neighboring countries.
Since the refugees began flooding home from camps in the former Zaire last October, there has been a sharp rise in the number of arrests of people suspected of involvement in the 1994 genocide, in which Hutus slaughtered at least 800,000 Tutsis and politically moderate Hutus.
According to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), at least 110,000 genocide suspects are now crammed into crowded prisons and makeshift cells around the country.
Rwanda's 18 central prisons are all full, some at four times their official capacity. But the biggest concern among humanitarian workers is the plight of the thousands of prisoners being held in more than 150 makeshift cells in rural villages. Aid workers describe conditions in some of these village lockups, or cachots communales, as "inhuman" and "worse than a nightmare."
Most are simply rooms in a house, office, or shop. Inmates are fed only if members of their family bring them food. Usually there is no regular drinking water, no washing facilities, and no medical care.
An expatriate aid worker describes conditions as "shocking": "Some people have been there for six months and are reduced to just skin and bone. They are locked up 24 hours a day. There's no soap, and some haven't washed in months. Men and women are together, and there are also some children. Mistreatment is systematic."
There are no official figures on the death rate in such cells, but aid workers estimate that "dozens" have died in the last few weeks. Sporadic violence in certain areas has prevented human rights workers from gathering information.
Despite the conditions, arrests are continuing daily at a rate of as many as 5,000 a month.
The refugees, most of them Hutus who fled the country in 1994 fearing reprisals by the new Tutsi government, returned home last year after Zairean Tutsi rebels broke up their refugee camps in eastern Zaire. Some of the returnees are Hutu militiamen and former soldiers - the perpetrators of the genocide - who held the other Rwandan refugees virtually hostage for more than two years.
The local cachot is meant as a place of temporary or overnight detention before transfer to a central prison. But the prisons are already so overloaded that transfers cannot take place.
"It's regrettable but unavoidable," says Gerald Gahima, principal adviser at the Ministry of Justice. "If someone says so-and-so killed many people, it's difficult to keep him out of prison just because the prisons are full. It's not a question of someone who's committed a traffic offense or theft. These are people accused of crimes involving the worst cruelty possible.... We need more money to build new prisons; there's no other way out."
The ICRC agrees that Rwanda's problem is unique and has recommended the building of new permanent prisons, where detainees can get proper food, water, and medical care. Since March 1995, the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, and Britain have given a total of $3.15 million to a UN Development Program fund to improve conditions of detention in Rwanda. By October, the fund will have provided just over 30,000 extra places in five semipermanent centers and extensions to existing prisons.
But UN officials say that they have had to fight for every penny and that there is no more money in the pipeline. Building prisons is distasteful to most donors, who prefer to be identified with less controversial projects.
Rwanda's request for help in building four new prisons has so far received a negative response. It says the amount given is paltry when compared with the annual $46 million allocated to the UN's International Criminal Tribunal in Tanzania, which has yet to make a single conviction among the "big fish" responsible for the genocide.
In December, Rwanda began its own genocide trials. Fewer than 30 have been completed so far, with the majority of defendants sentenced to death or life imprisonment. At that rate, lawyers calculate that it will take around 500 years to try those currently in detention.
worst prisons in the world
* Rwanda has the highest incarceration rate in the world, with 1,100 people jailed per 100,000 inhabitants.
* In comparison, the US has 602 per 100,000. In Europe, the rate ranges from 70 to 120.
* Rwanda's prisons have the worst conditions: In the town of Butare, a facility built for 1,200 held 17,537 people.
Source: International Prison Observatory, Lyon, France