Some 774 Rwandans convicted by community courts for their role in the 1994 genocide begin excavating stones for road construction as punishment for their role in the killings of more than a half-million people in this small central African nation.
The community service is intended to foster reconciliation after the slaughter of members of the Tutsi ethnic minority and political moderates from the Hutu majority. The killings were orchestrated by the extremist Hutu government then in power.
Some genocide survivors, however, were unhappy to see those who killed their relatives, stole their property and destroyed their lives receive what they considered to be lenient punishment.
“Maybe this is good for the country in general,” said Stanislas Niyongabo, a 37-year-old survivor. “But I don’t see any direct benefit to survivors who lost everything during the genocide.”
Alternative punishment hopes to foster reconciliation
The convicts began performing the alternative punishment after serving at least half of their sentences in jail. Community service is reserved for those who confessed their role in the 100-day genocide. Those convicted of rape and planning the slaughter, however, were serving their full sentences in prison.
Among other tasks, convicts are expected to build homes for genocide survivors, children orphaned by HIV/AIDS and other vulnerable members of the community.
“We set up this system to address many problems simultaneously. This arrangement abolishes the culture of impunity, fosters reconciliation while at the same time rebuilding the country,” Justice Minister Eda Mukabagwiza told the convicts as they prepared to start work.
On Sunday, some of the convicts attempted to make peace with the rest of the country. Speaking on behalf of fellow convicts, Athanase Semana asked Rwandans to give them “another chance for us to become normal Rwandans.”
“We came here with a lot of energy to pay back a debt that we owe to our country. We beg you to accept us back once we have finished our duties,” he said in Nteko, 31 miles southwest of Rwanda’s capital, Kigali.
Judicial system in action
The convicts were tried by the newly established community courts, known as Gacaca.
At least 760,000 Rwandans were accused of committing crimes during the genocide.
Those serving on the nine-judge Gacaca courts are elected from their communities and can impose penalties of up to 30 years in prison. Only conventional courts can impose the death penalty.
Rwandan officials said they turned to the Gacaca system to speed the judicial process, which has dragged on for more than a decade.
The genocide stopped only after Tutsi rebels led by Paul Kagame, now Rwanda’s president, ousted the former Hutu-led government.