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Rwandan justice in exile

A few weeks ago, at a garden cafe in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, a businessman stopped by my table to greet Gerard Gahima, the deputy justice minister.

"How's business?" Gahima asked him. "Not bad," the man said. "How's justice?" Gahima shook his head. "Not so good," he said. When we were alone, he put it more bluntly: "After genocide, justice is impossible."

It's true: The crimes committed against humanity in 1994 in Rwanda can never be fully punished. In 100 days, members of the Hutu majority, bent on exterminating the Tutsi minority, murdered at least 800,000 men, women and children. Tens of thousands more were raped or wounded. Property was looted and vandalized. Nobody knows how many took part.

"The majority of the people in this country," Gahima said. But, he added, "You cannot put all the people who committed these atrocities to death or in prison."

So what can be done? Nearly 76,000 people _ accused, often summarily, of participation in genocide _ have been packed into Rwanda's jails. None has been brought to trial.

The government has proposed a special genocide law, which reserves capital punishment for "planners, organizers, inciters, supervisors and framers," while offering reduced penalties to "ordinary" murderers, rapists and lesser criminals. But, as Gahima said, "That isn't justice, is it?"

Even if the new law passes, a crippling problem remains. The leaders of the genocide have fled into exile. That is why in December 1994 the United Nations created the war crimes tribunal for Rwanda, a satellite of the tribunal for the former Yugoslavia at The Hague, Netherlands.

The Rwanda tribunal is to prosecute the fugitive masterminds described in the first category of Rwanda's proposed law.

But the tribunal does not appear to be helping Rwanda's quest for justice. Its courtrooms and prisons are not in Rwanda but in so-called neutral territory in Arusha, Tanzania. And it is not empowered to seek the death penalty.

To the Rwandan government, these arrangements are an insult. Nazi war criminals were tried in Nuremberg and Japanese war criminals in Tokyo, for maximum impact on their societies _ and the convicted faced execution.

What's more, the tribunal has frustrated Rwandan attempts to extradite exiled suspects. Two months ago, Cameroon arrested 12 Rwandan suspects, including Col. Theoneste Bagosora, the purported military mastermind of the genocide. Bagosora's alleged crimes include ordering the execution of 10 U.N. peacekeepers from Belgium.

Belgium already had issued an international warrant for him, and after his arrest, so did Rwanda. But the tribunal, which has yet to indict the colonel, claims "universal jurisdiction." So he remains in Cameroon, in legal limbo.

When another major suspect, Froduald Karamira, was arrested in Ethiopia, Rwanda's request for extradition was again thwarted when the tribunal asserted its priority.

Each time the tribunal obstructs Rwanda's efforts, hearts harden in Kigali.

"The Rwandan people know this is the same international community that stood by and watched them get killed," Gahima said. "It makes it harder to forgive the ordinary people if we don't have the leaders here to be tried in Rwandan courts before the Rwandan people according to Rwandan law."

So far, the tribunal holds only three suspects in Arusha, and trials will not begin before September. That leaves plenty of time for the tribunal to move its proceedings to Kigali or, better yet, to hand over its prisoners to Rwanda.

Philip Gourevitch is writing a book on Rwanda.

New York Times