Special Section
New Thinking About Crime and Punishment

Putting together the pieces

After her people were slaughtered by neighbors, Geraldine Umugwaneza LL.M. '05 knows that forgiveness is elusive, but she is determined to help Rwanda move forward.

Geraldine Umugwaneza (left) and Rwanda (right)
After a genocide, only so much truth can be known, says Geraldine Umugwaneza, but
she hopes the Rwandan community courts she helped to establish will get at much of it.

Geraldine Umugwaneza LL.M. '05 doesn't think she could live in the Rwandan village where her family was murdered. After the 1994 genocide, the looting and violence left her mother's house a frightening shell. But what scares her more is the idea that even today the neighbors might kill her, too.

That a former Supreme Court judge should have such fears says a lot about the challenges that face Rwanda.

The government estimates that as many as 1 million people-- one-eighth of the population--participated in the 100 days of killing directed by Hutu extremists against at least 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus. In a country where so many who were victimized live in proximity to so many who are complicit, how do you seek justice?

Umugwaneza believes it's her obligation to try. Born a refugee in Uganda, she dreamed of the day she would go home to claim her identity. Violence against Tutsis had driven her parents from Rwanda in 1973, and it wasn't until 1984 that her family took a chance on moving back. Umugwaneza stayed on in Uganda with one of her sisters to finish her education. By the time she crossed the Rwandan border, at age 20, the genocide had taken the lives of her mother, grandmother and four of her siblings. It left her driven to help put her country back together.

After studying law at the National University of Rwanda, she started by advocating for thousands of widows of the genocide. Most of the women had been raped and many had HIV or AIDS. By 1996, about 70 percent of the remaining population was female, yet women had no right to inherit property or hold bank accounts. Umugwaneza is happy she played a role in changing the law. "They looked at me as a daughter," she said. "I felt it was something I had to do."

At the same time, the Rwandan government was struggling with what it had to do to respond to the genocide. Faced with an enormous backlog of prisoners awaiting trial, and few lawyers and judges (many had been killed), it drew on a traditional form of dispute resolution that promotes reconciliation between the perpetrator and the community, and offers a reduction of sentence for those who come forward and admit their crimes and ask for forgiveness.

Umugwaneza first served as a technical adviser to the Supreme Court, which was supervising the new "gacaca" (pronounced ga-CHA-cha) system, named for the grass where the traditional hearings took place. In 2002, when she was 28, she was appointed a judge in the chamber of the Supreme Court charged with implementing the program. She traveled to villages across the country where people were selected to serve on the local courts and hear testimony in front of the community in open-air hearings. There are now close to 12,000 such courts in a country about the size of Maryland. This spring, as Umugwaneza was finishing a paper on the courts as part of the LL.M. program at HLS, the first gacaca trials were held.

Umugwaneza explains that the system works in tandem with the conventional courts. As evidence is gathered, the crimes are classified. The majority of defendants, mostly those accused of having done the killing, are tried in the gacaca courts, where the maximum sentence is 30 years. The cases of those accused of having planned or instigated the genocide, on the other hand, are passed on to the conventional courts, which can impose the death penalty. The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, in Arusha, Tanzania, also relies on the gacaca courts for building its cases.

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