Last month, on the outskirts of Kigali, an impatient judge was berating a suspected member of an execution squad during the 1994 genocide. "Don't give us a long speech," said Immanuel Ngiruwera. "Just tell us the names of those you killed."
What was striking about the scene was its venue. This wasn't one of Rwanda's regular courts. Nor were the judges professionals; Ngiruwera is a shopkeeper with a primary education. Yet they were empowered to hand down a life sentence if they found the suspect guilty. It's all part of the country's alternate Gacaca (pronounced "ga-cha-cha") system. Meaning "justice on the grass," Gacaca is a parallel court network set up by the government in 2001 to help Rwanda deal with the massive number of cases —roughly 800,000—stemming from the 1994 slaughter. The system draws on the country's tradition of village justice and is meant to offer a more organic, less retributive means of dealing with Rwanda's horrendous past.
Domitilla Mukantaganzwa, the head of the government's Gacaca authority, says that Kigali has set up about 12,000 special courts. She acknowledges their imperfections. "You can't say that Gacaca is going to have a 100 percent success rate, but even if it is 85 percent, that is big."
Human-rights groups beg to differ, however, charging that the system is seriously flawed. The special courts are far more informal than regular ones, which is part of their appeal. They emphasize community participation: shops are forced to shut on trial days and all local villagers are expected to attend; any of them can speak at the hearings.
But this informality has its downsides. Activists and dissidents complain that the courts rely on unqualified judges, who abuse their power to settle scores and intimidate rivals. And defendants are not afforded counsel but expected to represent themselves.
Now the government wants to wrap up the process by early next year. That means trying some 50,000 people in just a few months. Alison des Forges, a senior adviser to the Africa division of Human Rights Watch, cautions that corners are being cut as the special courts try 10 to 15 cases a day. "There is enormous pressure. It's like the bar is closing and everyone wants the last drinks," she says.
Her concerns are echoed by Arnaud Royer of Amnesty International in London, who warns, "People could be sent to prison for flimsy reasons."
Critics argue that the system is also decidedly one-sided: it gives ethnic Tutsis the right to denounce their Hutu persecutors but doesn't offer Hutus the equivalent right to accuse the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front, which eventually ousted the murderous Hutu regime in 1994 and then set up the current government.
Zarir Merat, head of the Kigali office of Lawyers Without Borders, says, "When you have part of the population not being able to obtain justice, how do you obtain reconciliation?"
Such concerns are leading to domestic criticism that's rare in this semiauthoritarian state. Locals complain that the special courts are being manipulated for political ends. Jean-Leonard Rugambage, 35, an independent journalist, recalls the day in September 2005 when he was arrested and imprisoned for 10 months on genocide and contempt charges. His real crime? He had written about corruption in the special-court system. "In principle Gacaca is a good thing," he says. "But in practice there are many problems. The judges have the power to do anything they want." Royer agrees, arguing that the Gacaca system "is not considered independent from the authorities." Des Forges points out that the government has shown bias in its emphasis—for example, by pushing to extradite fugitives who might pose a political threat in the future.
To be fair, Rwanda has come a long way since '94, earning a reputation as one of Africa's least corrupt and most efficient states. And the Gacaca system may not be all bad. Mukantaganzwa vehemently rejects criticism that justice is being sacrificed for expediency. "If you want to compare Gacaca to the American or French justice systems, it will not work," she says. "But Gacaca is about reconciliation. The fact that it is done in the community and is bringing together suspected perpetrators and victims, this is reconciliation."
There is, furthermore, a real urgency to wrap things up fast. As Mukantaganzwa points out, "Justice delayed is justice denied," and Rwanda's prisons remain horribly overcrowded with suspects from '94. But Gacaca still frustrates many victims, who complain that it has focused mostly on small fry and that it often hands down lenient sentences. And it is raising hostility among ethnic Hutus, who feel it is being used to impose a sense of collective guilt. As a current saying in Rwanda goes, "The Hutus had their genocide, and the Tutsis have their Gacaca." That's no way to rebuild a country.