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Justice for Rwanda's Genocide May Require a Plea Bargain With Killers

Euphrasie Kamatamu was a well-known figure in Kigali. As the Hutu administrative counselor for the central district of Mohima, she bestowed favors, often settled disputes, and never moved without her two bodyguards.

At the onset of the 1994 genocide, she allegedly got hold of as many guns as she could, stacked them in her house, and distributed them to anyone willing to help in the planned extermination of Rwanda's Tutsi population. Survivors say she also urged her bodyguards to go out and kill.

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More than three years later, Ms. Kamatamu's appearance in a moldering courtroom in downtown Kigali on charges of genocide sent a murmur through the crowd. Her head shaved, her stocky frame pulling at the seams of her bright-pink prison wear, Kamatamu took her seat, waiting for the all-too familiar procedure to begin.

It was the seventh time the civil parties seeking damages had trickled in from the hills around Kigali to see justice carried out. But seven months after the first hearing in April, the trial had yet to begin.

This is because she is being tried along with three others: her husband, suspected of being a reluctant accomplice, and her two bodyguards, who are accused of murdering more than 300 people. The three have taken turns not showing in court, claiming illness and forcing the tribunal to adjourn hearing after hearing.

Ironically, the three codefendants have a far greater incentive to show up in court than Kamatamu. Listed as Category 2 prisoners, they would automatically qualify for a 50 percent sentence reduction if they confess and name other accomplices. Kamatamu is in Category 1, along with roughly 2,000 people who used their position of power and influence to carry out the planned slaughter of Tutsis and moderate Hutus in 1994. The sentence for prisoners found guilty of Category 1 crimes is death.

The four cases illustrate the obstacles the government faces in trying to implement a plea-bargaining program that stands out as the country's only hope of processing a case-load of 120,000 genocide suspects. "Plea-bargaining is this country's only chance," says a foreign humanitarian aid worker in Kigali. "Otherwise we're looking at 150 years worth of trials."

Yet in "the Kamatamu affair," as it has come to be known, prosecutors as well as defense lawyers suspect Kamatamu has coached her codefendants in flat-out denials and instructed them in the delaying tactics that have made prosecution impossible. "They have not confessed, and I don't think they will," says Diabira Boubou, a Mauritian attorney recruited by Lawyers Without Borders, a nonprofit organization that is single-handedly providing defense counsel for the detainees. Says Mr. Boubou: "If they confess, they get a sentence reduction, but she gets the death penalty."

Because alleged Category 2 offenders share their prison space with their former leaders, fear of retribution often prevents them from confessing. Out of 195 trials completed by the end of August, only 45 accused chose to plea bargain. "[Category 1 suspects] are still preaching their politics of hatred, telling the others that the government will never honor its part of the bargain," says Gerald Gahima, secretary general of the Justice Ministry and widely credited as the brain behind the plea-bargaining program. Separating suspects in the two categories would appear to be the obvious solution. However, the government lacks the resources to build new jails or reroute prisoners, and no foreign government or institution has agreed to help fund the project.

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Also working against the plea-bargaining program - which the government muscled through against the will of genocide survivors whose idea of justice does not include drastic sentence reductions - is the civil-law mentality Rwanda inherited from its former colonial ruler, Belgium.

"In common-law countries, plea-bargaining is the rule, not the exception. Ninety percent of cases in the United States are plea-bargained and it can take three minutes to settle a case," says the aid worker, "In civil-law countries, you actually litigate a plea-bargain, meaning you go to court and stay there for years."

Rwanda has been trying to streamline plea-bargaining by removing some of the constraints of civil-law procedures. "For one we have made the 50 percent sentence reduction for those who confess automatic," says Mr. Gahima, "This is a novelty for us."

Still, with the courts steeped in civil-law mentality and with most defense attorneys provided by Lawyers without Borders also trained in civil-law countries, hauling plea-bargaining out of the courts is proving an impossible task.

"What this country needs are lawyers from common-law countries who can plea-bargain with their eyes closed," says the aid worker. Rwanda has in fact been trying to recruit American lawyers through the United States Institute for Peace. But so far, success has been limited.

"Lawyers without Borders is trying as hard as it can, but the only response they are getting is from attorneys in Senegal and Mali, some of them with limited experience," says a Western observer, "People should be sending their best in Rwanda, but they are not."

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