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Massacre trials in Rwanda have courts on overload

Dressed in a pink prison uniform, the defendant glared at the floor, arms crossed, jaw clenched while a clerk read the charges against her.

When the clerk was done, one of the three judges asked the defendant, Hadijar Mukakayijuka, if it were true she had informed squads of Hutu militants where her Tutsi neighbors were hiding? And had she not ordered her brothers _ who at the time were officials in the military and the militia _ to rape and murder her Tutsi neighbors?

"It's not true," she said. "It never happened." Her voice trembling, she told the court she had been falsely accused by a Tutsi neighbor who was jealous. "We had a problem because we were seeing the same man and we fought," she said.

Mukakayijuka, who also is accused of murdering three Tutsi children, is one of the 120,000 Hutu people who have been arrested in Rwanda in the last three years on genocide charges stemming from the four-month bloodletting in 1994 in which at least 500,000 Tutsi died. The Hutu government that orchestrated the killing was then overthrown by a rebel Tutsi army, and Tutsi now dominate the government.

While an international tribunal investigating the massacres has limped along, hampered by corruption and mismanagement, Rwanda has made great efforts in the last year to rebuild a justice system shattered during the war and genocide, when many lawyers and judges died or fled into exile.

Since January, the Rwandan courts have tried more than 200 people, handing out death sentences to about 40 percent and life in prison to about 30 percent. About 1 in 20 defendants has been acquitted.

But the government's relative success in training new judges and bringing cases to trial has not eased the legal crisis here, nor has it brought about reconciliation between the ethnic groups, say aid workers, lawyers and diplomats.

With ethnic war raging in this hilly nation's western provinces, the police and the Tutsi-dominated military continue to arrest more than 1,000 Hutu a month on various genocide charges, shoving them into already teeming prisons, where most await hearings without formal charges lodged against them. At the present rate of trials, it would take 500 years to try all the defendants.

To break the logjam, justice officials had pinned their hopes on a law passed last year offering people who took part in the killings but were not ringleaders reduced sentences in return for a full confession and apology. But so far only 45 people have confessed. Most inmates insist on a day in court, saying they were framed or falsely accused.

"We intended to deal with most of these cases through the confession program," said Gerald Gahima, a high-ranking justice official. "It has not picked up and in the ministry, we are still trying to see how we can jump-start it."

One reason is that since more than 700,000 Hutu refugees returned from camps in Congo, the former Zaire, a year ago, the prisons are filling up with politicians, military officers and intellectuals who, as planners and organizers of the killings, face the death penalty.

For obvious reasons, these leaders are discouraging those facing lesser charges from cutting a deal with prosecutors. Hutu solidarity is the message running among the inmates.

Most Hutu prisoners do not even recognize the government as legitimate. Many deny a genocide took place and describe what happened in 1994 as part of the civil war, rather than the orchestrated attempt to wipe out the Tutsi that it was.

"You have a war on," said an aid worker, speaking on condition of anonymity. "So the concept that justice could bring about national reconciliation is invalid. I'm not sure that most Hutu agree that a judgment meted out today wouldn't be motivated by revenge."

Clavier Nkulikiyinka, a 46-year-old veterinarian from the town of Byumba, is typical of the educated Hutu locked up in the Gikondo prison in Kigali.

Nkulikiyinka was arrested in June last year on charges he led a group of militia members who massacred people in Kigali. He faces the death penalty if convicted. Like many of the 7,400 men in the prison, he maintains he hid in a house during the violence and did not take part in killings.

After five appearances in court, he says he has no faith in the justice system. The Tutsi authorities, he says, have already determined he is guilty. His lawyer, a Hutu, was arrested recently on genocide charges. He does not know who the prosecution's witnesses are or how he will defend himself.

"I don't think its going to be a fair trial," he said. "There are some people who died on my street, and they say I participated in these killings. I never did."

For Rwandan justice officials, a major obstacle to fair trials has been a lack of defense lawyers. More than half of the defendants are facing trial with no counsel. After the civil war and genocide, there are only 44 trained lawyers in the country, and most do not want to take on the cases.

Five foreign lawyers working for an aid organization, Lawyers Without Borders, have provided counsel to more than 70 defendants, but they are stretched thin and cannot reach all the courthouses in the rural provinces because of danger.

For Mukakayijuka, the 35-year-old mother who stood in the dock recently to face a death-penalty charge, having a defense lawyer provided by Lawyers Without Borders made a difference. The lawyer, Guindo Boubacar, an experienced litigator from Mali, made short work of the prosecutor's case. He rattled off several glaring contradictions in the witnesses' statements and demanded that they be brought into court to be cross-examined.

At first, one of the judges stoutly objected that most of the witnesses were Hutu militia members in jail on genocide charges themselves. Therefore, he said, they were not reliable and could not help the court reach the truth.

Gently, Boubacar pointed out that that was precisely why the witnesses should be cross-examined: they were unreliable. Logic prevailed. The judges agreed to adjourn the trial for a month until the witnesses could be found in prison and brought to court.