Rwandan Human Rights Activist Accused of Genocide
Extremely disturbing news out of Rwanda: a senior official with a Rwandan human-rights group has been arrested after being accused of complicity in the 1994 genocide by a local gacaca court:
Francois-Xavier Byuma, vice-president of the board of the Rwandan League for the Promotion and Defence of Human Rights ["Turengere Abana"], was detained last week in Kigali and taken Wednesday to the city’s main prison, the sources said.
Byuma, who is also a popular playwright, was arrested after being implicated by a village grassroot tribunal, known as gacaca, for complicity in the Rwandan genocide.
Based on the concept of a traditional tribal council, the gacacas were set up with the aim of clearing a heavy backlog of genocide-related cases from Rwanda’s criminal courts.
According to Amnesty International, Byuma’s arrest is retaliation for his group’s investigation into the rape of a young girl that may well have been committed by the gacaca judge who accused him of complicity:
Turengere Abana recently started investigations into the rape of a 17-year-old girl. Turengere Abana alleges that it has followed leads suggesting that the rapist was the presiding judge of a local gacaca court.
After Turengere Abana commenced its investigations, the presiding judge from the local gacaca court issued a summons to François-Xavier Byuma. The gacaca court is part of a nationwide community-based justice system intended to try suspects of the 1994 genocide.
The gacaca court, in the Bilyogo secteur (district) of the capital, Kigali, did not specify the charges against François-Xavier Byuma in the summons, which he received on 3 May. He is thus unable to prepare a defence. The trial was originally scheduled for 6 May. It has been postponed to 13 May, as another trial was already in progress on 6 May.
If Amnesty International is correct, Byuma’s arrest illustrates one of the basic problems with the gacaca courts — their inadequate protection of defendants’ due process rights. Here are just a few of the problems:
A majority of cases will be judged on the basis of case-files prepared and passed on to the gacaca benches by the Public Prosecutor’s Offices. Lay judges, with virtually no legal training, may be unwilling to challenge the information contained in them. Likewise, it will be difficult for defendants, without counsel, to effectively counter cases prepared by state authorities with infinitely more resources at their disposal. The fact that these individuals were arrested and detained for years by the government may further dispose gacaca participants to consider the pre-trial detainees as guilty regardless of the merits of their cases or the fact that in most cases detainees were arbitrarily arrested and unlawfully detained.
There is no clear, definitive statement in the gacaca legislation that states when defendants are informed of the charges and case against them. Defendants require adequate time and facilities to prepare their defence, particularly as they are responsible for it. There is also no provision enabling the gacaca benches to adjourn proceedings if defendants have not been given sufficient time or the materials to prepare their case. Defendants who have pleaded guilty to genocide offence(s) are present when the cell gacaca organs categorize their offence(s). Detainees will be informed of the charges against them and the category within which they fall following the seventh meeting of the gacaca organs when the courts categorize each of the accused according to Organic Law No 08/96 of 30 August 1996.
The competence of the gacaca judges is questionable. Most of them have no legal or human rights background. The highly abbreviated training they have received is grossly inadequate to the task at hand, given the range, character and complexity of crimes committed during the genocide. Their concomitant lack of legal objectivity, moreover, could make it more difficult for them to resist governmental and local interference in gacaca proceedings or their own subjective experience of what occurred.
More as the story develops.