Rwanda's judicial system still lacks the reforms needed to allow the extradition of suspects of the 1994 genocide, according to Human Rights Watch. In a new report, the organisation says the courts are neither independent nor able to guarantee fair trials. The laws have changed considerably, the underlying political dynamics far less.
In its 113-page report, Human Rights Watch examines recent reforms in the Rwandan judicial system, mentioning encouraging reforms such as the abolition of the death penalty. But it also identifies problems. "We identified serious problems in such areas as judicial independence, the right to present a defence, and the right to equal access to justice for all," said Alison Des Forges, Africa advisor at HRW. "It's still the case that defendants in Rwanda may be denied their right to a fair trial."
The 1994 genocide claimed the lives of an estimated 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus. It also left the Rwandan judiciary in ruins. Since then, the RPF government has faced growing calls to prosecute suspects responsible for the mass killings.
Hundreds of thousands of people took part in the genocide. Although it was government policy only to prosecute only officials, thousands of people were randomly accused of genocide. By late 1998, around 135,000 people had been detained. Many were held for years without charge or investigation into their alleged involvement. From 1996 to 2002, only 7,000 persons were tried on genocide charges. Some 50,000 have been released since 2005.
To speed up prosecutions and promote reconciliation, Rwanda resorted to Gacaca trials, a traditional community justice system. Rwanda's Gacaca is a system of thousands grassroots legal bodies in which community judges preside over genocide trials. All villagers can participate and intervene, either for or against the defendant.
In the meantime the conventional justice system has been reformed. The system now has greater autonomy, less courtrooms and judges, and a set of educational criteria for judicial posts. Some rights of the accused have been strengthened. In 2007 the death penalty was abolished.
However, basic fair trial rights are not fully assured, including the presumption of innocence, the right to present witnesses in one's own defense, and the rights to humane conditions of detention and freedom from torture.
Human Rights Watch has also documented cases of genocide prosecution that have been marred by interference by powerful individuals. Judges remain subject to pressure from members of the executive branch and other parties, the organisation says.
Moreover, the judiciary operates in difficult political context. The government has shown little tolerance for views on the past that dissent from its own. People who question official interpretations of the genocide can face charges of 'divisionism' and 'genocidal ideology'. Such allegations can result merely from repeating what has been said by investigators from the United Nations and various NGOs: that soldiers of the Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA), the military branch of the RPF, committed war crimes and crimes against humanity in 1994 and later.
Political pressure in Rwanda has made it virtually impossible for victims of the crimes of RPA soldiers to receive justice, says Human Rights Watch. According to government statistics, only 32 soldiers have been brought to trial for crimes committed against civilians in 1994. Of these, 14 have been found guilty and given light sentences.
Extraditions in doubt
With the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) due to close its doors in 2010, Prosecutor Hassan Jallow has sought to move some of the outstanding cases to Rwanda. Courts in France and the United Kingdom are also considering sending alleged 'genocidaires' back to their home country. Extraditions like these depend mainly on whether fair trials can be guaranteed in Rwandan courts.
Two lower courts - one in France and another in Britain - have already approved the extradition of genocide suspects to Rwanda. However, the French decision was reversed on appeal and the UK ruling is still on appeal. The ICTR Appeals Chamber is still examining rulings by the lower court judges who refused to transfer cases to Rwanda because they could not guarantee the suspects fair trials and proper treatment.
"It is extremely important that those implicated in serious crimes such as genocide be tried," said Des Forges. "But they should be tried in legal systems that can guarantee independent and fair trials, and appropriate punishments."
Read the report: Law and Reality, Progress in Judicial Reform in Rwanda