Criminal Justice Section  


Criminal Justice Magazine
Summer 2001
Volume 16, Issue 2

American Lawyers in Rwanda Offer Tools to Tame Chaos

By Michael Th. Johnson, Ralph C. Martin II, and Robert M.A. Johnson

American criminal lawyers are perhaps the most overworked and under-appreciated members of our legal profession . . . or at least we think we are. Plagued by huge caseloads, crushing schedules, and scarce resources, there is some substantial justification for our self-image and sometimes self-pity. That is why many of us look to technology to help in maximizing the resources we have available-including our time. That is also why many American lawyers look outside the United States for a sense of perspective on just how good we may have it here at home. Rwanda provided that humbling perspective.

Over the last seven years the justice system in the small, East African country of Rwanda has struggled to overcome the aftermath of the 1994 genocide that left at least 10 percent of its population dead and hundreds of thousands more of its citizens traumatized. With more than 125,000 defendants in custody awaiting trial on murder, rape, and arson charges, it is fair to say that, even under the best of circumstances, the country's task is overwhelming. What took these defendants only 100 days to commit could take as long as 400 years to adjudicate. The Rwandan justice system has been able to deliver due process of law at the rate of less than 1,000 trials a year. The reasons are simple. The country's justice system has only minimal resources and the most rudimentary of technological tools with which to work. The deficit of management tools that could maximize the country's scarce resources has clearly crippled the progress in achieving justice and accountability.

In 1999, at the request of the United States Institute for Peace, members of the American Bar Association's Criminal Justice Section and other U.S. lawyers began to explore the potential for applying technology to the Rwandan genocide caseload. The object was to help the Rwandeise expedite their justice system without compromising quality. Towards this end, a coalition of American, Rwandan, and Canadian lawyers teamed up with Graphic Computer Solutions (GCS), developers of legal case management systems used throughout the United States, and set to work building a computerized Rwandan criminal justice data and case management system. This summer, the coalition will install and begin training on that system in the Office of the Parquet General Pres La Cour Supreme (attorney general) of Rwanda in Kigali, the capital. The budget for the project has been little or nothing, relying on the generosity of individuals and corporations for in-kind donations and travel and shipping expenses.
The history of this project is a fascinating example of how individual lawyers can make a difference in the quality of human life halfway around the world with a minimum of personal sacrifice. More importantly, they can do it because it is "the right thing to do" and they have the skills to do it well. It is also a clear example of an American corporation that, when asked, developed and donated the tools necessary to help a country restore its dignity.

Brief history of modern Rwanda

The genocide that occurred in Rwanda in 1994 received minimal coverage in the popular media in the United States. National public television and radio and major newspapers gave contemporary accounts of the killings and their aftermath. (For an extensive review of recent Rwandan political and legal history, see GERARD PRUNIER, THE RWANDA CRISIS, HISTORY OF A GENOCIDE, Kampala, Uganda: Fountain, 1995; and RWANDA: DEATH, DESPAIR, AND DEFIANCE, London: Africa Rights, 1995. For a more personalized review of the genocide, see PHILIP GOUREVITCH, WE WISH TO INFORM YOU THAT TOMORROW WE WILL BE KILLED WITH OUR FAMILIES, New York, Picador, 1998.)

However, the most reliable, accurate, and detailed accounting of the cause and impact of the genocide of 1994 will be found in the court records and decisions arising out of the disposition of the criminal cases now pending. The thousands of criminal trials that are taking place across Rwanda, and the dozens of cases tried in the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, will give the world the factual context of one of the most horrific crimes in history. The records of these proceedings, if preserved, are critical to the accurate documentation of this period and the avoidance of the mistakes that allowed it to occur. When completed, they will give the critical details to the following story.

From independence in the late 1950s until the conclusion of a civil war in the first half of the 1990s, Rwanda was wracked by the political exploitation of ethnic and economic tensions. The right-wing, military-led government that controlled Rwanda for most of the post-independence period encouraged a culture of ethnic and cultural hatred known as "Hutu Power." The Hutu Power elite periodically sponsored mass killings of civilians who belonged to moderate political groups or to the Tutsi ethnic minority, leading to tens of thousands of refugees fleeing the country. A civil war erupted in 1990 when the Rwandan Patriotic Army (called the Rwandan Patriotic Front or RPF), an insurgent force made up mostly of refugees, challenged the legitimacy of the Hutu Power-led government of Rwanda.

In early 1994, a peace accord was negotiated between the government of Rwanda and the RPF. In April, on the eve of a power-sharing settlement, a state-sponsored genocide was inaugurated against moderate Hutus and the Tutsi minority in Rwanda. During the next three months, the government of Rwanda and its agents murdered at least 800,000 men, women, and children. The entire population of Rwanda at the time of the genocide was approximately eight million.

The international community failed to act to stop the genocide, even though well-established international law compelled it to do so. It was only after the insurgent RPA defeated the military forces of the government that the killings stopped.
The war and the genocide ravaged the already weak judicial system of Rwanda. In its report on the crisis, the Organization for African Unity stated:

Many court buildings had been wrecked. Of the few qualified legal professionals, many had been killed, had participated in the killings, or had fled the country. The Justice Minister had no budget and no car. There were five judges in the entire country, all without cars or proper offices. Only 50 practicing lawyers remained, about the number to be found in any medium-sized law firm in New York; most were not versed in criminal law, and of those who were, some refused to defend accused mass murderers and others feared for their own security if they did.
(Rwanda: The Preventable Genocide, 18.4; go to

In the aftermath of the genocide, the RPF formed a permanent parliamentary government and began the process of establishing the rule of law and accountability for the crimes committed. The law governing the genocide articulates four categories of culpability based upon the level of crimes committed and the degree of the leadership role played by the accused. The colonial traditions of Belgium's civil law system are reflected in the three-judge panels who hear the trials. The Rwandan government is presently designing and implementing a community-based alternative called Gacaca for the adjudication of lesser level (category 2-4) offenders. The cases of up to 100,000 genocide defendants out of the almost 125,000 detainees could potentially be transferred to Gacaca. Of course, all of the proceedings will need to be recorded and tracked in order to achieve long-term accountability.

Circumstances in Rwanda today

The dramatic backlog of cases, coupled with deteriorating infrastructure and limited professional staff, is well documented. Efforts to identify ways in which American legal professionals can help have focused on the core resources needed. (See e.g., Robert F. Van Lierop, Rwanda Evaluation: Report and Recommendation, 31 (No. 3) INT'L LAW. (Fall 1997).) However, little positive assistance from colleagues in the United States has been forthcoming. In looking at Rwanda's needs, we must continue to remind ourselves that they differ very little from judicial needs in the United States. If we want to help them, we need only look at our own offices for inspiration.

The criminal justice system in Rwanda is unique only in the circumstances of its present caseload. Like all other justice systems worldwide, its mandate is to provide accountability for antisocial conduct, fair resolution of disputes between individuals and the collective community, and general and specific deterrence of future criminal behavior. Nonetheless, it can't be denied that the scale of the 1994 genocide has overwhelmed Rwanda and its justice system. The very fact that the Rwandan government is attempting to provide due process to those accused of these heinous crimes is testament to the society's respect for the law. The accuracy of the record of this period will depend in very large part on the resources available to the Rwandan criminal justice professionals and administrators trying to complete the task they themselves have set out to accomplish.

History of the project

Neil Kritz, of the United States Institute of Peace, first approached several members of the ABA Criminal Justice Section in late-1998 with a request to provide help to the government of Rwanda. Kritz had been working with the Rwandeise for several years drafting legislation and trying to acquire needed resources. The members of the Section had been working with IBM to provide donated technology and training to the International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. That project was coordinated out of the office of Assistant District Attorney General Kevin Rardin in Memphis, Tennessee, and represented the largest private donation in the history of the tribunals. It included prosecutors from West Palm Beach, Florida, New Hampshire, and Los Angeles. It appeared that a similar collaboration between private enterprise, legal institutions, and individual attorneys in the United States could produce similar results for the Rwandan domestic justice system. After a review of the 1997 Van Lierop report, a delegation traveled to Rwanda in January 1999 and again in late spring. Two prefectures were studied during the six-day visit, the cities of Kigali and Butare. Two prisons, two parquets (prosecutor's offices), and three government ministries were studied and interviews were conducted with a number of criminal justice officials.

The delegation also met with George Lewis of USAID and the U.S. ambassador to Rwanda, George Staples, who expressed strong support for any assistance to the Rwandan justice system. Extensive visits to the National University Law School and the Kigali Institute for Science, Technology, and Management convinced the delegation that the professional, technical, and educational capabilities were in place. It was apparent that a partnership with their American counterparts could greatly advantage all involved.

During the discussions with Rwandan officials it became clear to the American delegation that the conditions under which the judicial system was functioning were intolerable. Buildings in the three prefectures were insufficient in size, design, repair, and capacity. The electrical systems, plumbing, and structural design failed to meet the most minimal needs of those who used them. Victims and witnesses stood out in the rain waiting for appointments. Prosecutors worked two and three to a room preparing cases and interviewing victims and witnesses. Judges stood in line to use public facilities during breaks in the courts' sessions. Communications between agencies frequently broke down for lack of technology, resulting in wasted court time and resources. The level of education and intellect of all practitioners within the system was of the highest caliber, yet the system functioned at well less than capacity because of the shortage of resources.

There are many corporations that have developed complex technical tools to make the American legal profession more efficient and effective. Those tools rapidly deliver research, case management, evidence presentation, docketing, word processing, and a myriad of other critical functions to legal staff and advocates. The tools are designed to fit the system that we rely on to deliver justice in America; a system that we have come to believe is the best and fairest in the world. The design process is frequently a collaboration between the lawyers who intend to use the tools and the designers and developers who developed them. The solution to Rwanda's massive caseload is no different.

It is certainly admirable for lawyers to step out of their box and try to understand and assist the needs of a country in crisis, such as Rwanda, but it is quite another thing for a business enterprise. Fortunately, Graphic Computer Solutions in Silver Spring, Maryland, was willing to take on the challenge. The company designs and distributes legal case management software, including "Prosecutor Dialog."

In early 1999, the delegation of lawyers returned to the United States and approached GCS with the request for a donation of a complete license for its case management program to the government of Rwanda, valued at more than $300,000. The company agreed, with the understanding that it would require technical assistance in modifying the program to fit the Rwandan judicial system. Attorney Onyen Yong of the Suffolk County District Attorney's Office in Boston was "volunteered" to the task in addition to his regular work of running the office's information technology section and prosecuting criminal cases.

Prosecutor Dialog is a comprehensive case management system used in many jurisdictions in the United States to help prosecutorial offices manage their caseloads more effectively. It compiles information on each defendant by case filing with search engines and display screens for multiple applications within a prosecutor's office. It is designed to integrate with other fundamental office tools, such as automated calendaring and word processing. The system is written in Visual Basic and runs on one of three database platforms: Microsoft Access, Microsoft SQL, or Oracle. The principals of the corporation have been in the legal data management field for more than 20 years. Prosecutor Dialog allows the law office to enter and store documents, photographs, and data; manage resources within the office; docket court obligations; and track and record dispositions. It records and retrieves the information by person, event, case, offense, location, courts, and/or other classifications as determined by the user. It can function in Microsoft's Windows or on a Macintosh system.

In December 1999, Procurer General Gerald Gahima, of Rwanda, visited the Suffolk County District Attorney's Office in Boston to observe the software program in operation. At that time he met with Assistant District Attorney Onyen Yong and Linda Lorden, administrative assistant and information technology director for the Merrimack County Attorney's Office in Concord, New Hampshire. Yong, Lorden, and Gahima discussed the need to modify the program in a number of areas to meet the specific requirements of the Rwandan system, including the translation of the entire software into French-Rwanda's legal language. GCS agreed to modify the program to meet Rwanda's requirements, but first faced the difficult task of finding someone who could translate the program codes into French.

In spring 2000, Onyen Yong, Neil Kritz, and several other American criminal justice practitioners traveled to Rwanda to again meet with Attorney General Gahima and his staff and came away with a list of additional modifications to the GCS system. Accompanied by a Rwandan architect and others, the American delegation visited eight prefectures to develop a clear assessment of the state of the criminal justice infrastructure in those jurisdictions.

In June 2000, a request was made to the Ministere de la Justice Canada for help in translation of the program. D.A. Bellemare, Q.C., assistant deputy attorney general (criminal law) immediately offered the assistance of the Federal Prosecution Service for the project. Within a few months, the translations were complete-with the exception of some technical terms that baffled everyone. After much searching, CommuniCom Corporation, Cape Cod, Massachusetts, provided the remaining translations, and the project was ready for the programmers.

To facilitate the continuing review of the state of the justice system in Rwanda and the modification of the case management program, Southern Methodist Law School in Dallas, Texas, sponsored an Emily Young Esquire Fellowship to the Office of the Attorney General of Rwanda during the 2000 fall semester. A graduate of the law school assisted Rwanda's attorney general, visiting a number of prefectures in the process. The student spent her last month on a project at the National University Law School in Butare.

In the fall 2000, GCS began the arduous process of modifying the code for the program to incorporate the translations and changes outlined. Over the course of the winter, those modifications were completed and reviewed by both Rwandan and American lawyers. In March, New York University Law School and Professor Ronald Goldstock invited Busingye Johnston, deputy to Attorney General Gahima, to New York to co-present a class on corruption. During that trip, he spent two days with programmers for GCS to finalize the translations and modifications to the program. Robert Bass, a lawyer with the firm of Cleveland, Waters, and Bass in Concord, New Hampshire, provided funds to purchase several sophisticated DELL computer servers and other hardware at cost from the manufacturer. With the donation of numerous workstations, the initial installation of an automated case management system in Rwanda has begun.

David Akerson, a lawyer in Denver, Colorado, and the former chief of the evidence section at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, was recruited for the project based upon his unique understanding of the process. He joined Onyen Yong and Roman Uichr, of Etensity, a senior designer of the case management program, to install and begin training Rwanda's criminal justice staff this summer and fall. Though their visits will be short, they and their offices are all volunteering their time and talents. Their collaboration with GCS will make a monumental difference in the quality and quantity of justice in Rwanda. They will have done it at substantial sacrifice to themselves, but it is, after all, the "right thing to do."

The future expansion of the project to include automation of the courts, police/investigators, prisons, and defenders will complete the necessary systemic improvements needed. However, tools alone are not sufficient. The Rwandeise need American prosecutors, judges, investigators, and defenders to assist them in the development of management standards and protocols that will enhance both the speed of justice and also its quality. Collaboration between potential funding sources and the American legal profession and its institutions is necessary. Volunteer lawyers like Yong, Akerson, and Rardin need funding for travel and housing. Rwandan legal professionals need financial support that allows them to come to the United States to work with our domestic institutional managers in court administration, and prosecution and defender offices. The GCS project is just one example of how dramatic the results can be when such collaboration occurs.

Other immediate needs

Rwanda needs everything in the way of judicial assistance, except for professionalism and sheer determination, which it has in abundance. These needs are all the more critical because of the scale of the caseload and the impending implementation of Gacaca. If thousands of defendants are "transferred" to local panels without the necessary tracking of the proceedings and their outcomes, long-term accountability could be illusive, if not impossible.

Rwanda, like all justice systems, must have skilled and adequately compensated personnel in sufficient number to successfully dispense justice in a timely manner. Training is required in systems and institutional management, technology administration, data entry and end use, as well as basic investigative techniques, evidence collection and presentation, and case tracking and management. The personnel must have sufficient tools to enable them to efficiently manage the caseload of criminal investigations, screening, charging, trial preparation, and trials and postconviction obligations. The justice system agencies must be coordinated in order to maximize the utility of their collective resources. Judges, prosecutors, defendants, their advisors, and prison administrators must synchronize their schedules to be in the same place at the same time prepared to address the same cases. The other agencies of the criminal justice system must have case tracking programs like the software provided by GCS.
Because it is for the public's benefit that these tasks are performed, justice systems must have dignified buildings and courtrooms that are appropriately furnished with functional office equipment and supplies. The need for basic furniture and equipment to run the Rwandan courts is acute. It is impossible to provide justice on the scale that faces them without desks, chairs, file cabinets, copy machines, paper, pens, and reliable electricity and communications. These are simple amenities that impair justice with their absence. They are simple things that are found in abundance in the United States, but cost a substantial amount to ship to Africa.

At present, Rwanda has talented, dedicated, but under-trained personnel in insufficient numbers. The tools with which they have to work are in short supply, but could be easily upgraded by the infusion of additional technology. The court and prosecutorial offices in the prefectures of Rwanda are largely substandard. These buildings could quickly and inexpensively, by U.S. standards, be repaired or rebuilt and inexpensively equipped to provide the appropriate dignity to the tasks at hand.

The courts, prisons, and prosecutor's offices within each prefecture operate similarly to their U.S. counterparts. They require desks, chairs, bookcases, file cabinets, computers, printers, copiers, file folders, paper, pens, labels, and a myriad of assorted office supplies. The computer hardware and software requirements are similar to many high volume systems in the United States as well. Equipped with the appropriate tools and the training to use them, the Rwandan criminal justice system personnel have the potential to meet the burden confronting them. Without those tools and skills, there appears little chance of effecting any meaningful justice or meeting the expectations of the people they serve. This is what lawyers like Neil Kritz, Onyen Yong, David Akerson, and D.A. Bellemare, and Roman Uichr and the computer program designers and developers at Graphic Computer Solutions have come to understand. That's why they have done so much with so little-because they could.

Rwanda's social stability

The reimposition of the rule of law to stop the genocide was a critical step for the Rwandeise. To prevent the recurrence of genocide, Rwanda will require a vital legal system that commands the trust and respect of people not only in Rwanda, but in the world community as well. The institutions that are grappling with the aftermath of the genocide, and the resulting massive caseload, will have to transition in the near future to a permanent system capable of providing independent justice to all Rwandeise equally. The institutions that are being built in Rwanda today are critical to Rwanda's short- and long-term future.

Initially, the Rwandeise who stopped the genocide and deposed the extremist regime were faced with a difficult choice. They could have dispensed retribution quickly and efficiently or they could have chosen to rely on the rule of law to provide a judicial accountability for the genocide. With more than 100,000 defendants in prison awaiting trial, the decision they made is more than admirable.
The more the Rwandan justice system is modernized, the more it can communicate and integrate with the world community. That would serve many positive goals, not the least of which is the opportunity to learn, from the Rwandeise themselves, lessons that could prevent the recurrence of the horrors of 1994.

Assisting the Rwandan judicial system also promotes the country's economy. Rwanda's president, Paul Kagame, in an interview with a member of the IBM delegation in 1999, made it clear that the future of Rwanda lies in technology. Landlocked, with few natural resources or mineral wealth, Rwanda's future lies with its people and the skills they develop.

While it is expensive and difficult to travel in or out of Rwanda, within seconds the Internet can bring commerce and entrepreneurial opportunity to the country. The Kigali Institute of Technology and Management has proven that Rwandans have the aptitude and the enterprise to engage with the world on equal terms, thanks to technology. An infusion of technology into the justice system can enhance the transfer of skills within the Rwandan society as a whole. Those who say that the Rwandeise need more shovels, pencils, and paper are wrong. They need more computers. Those who say that the Rwandeise do not know how to use the technology are mostly wrong. It's not a lack of aptitude, but an absence of opportunity that plagues the country. The world has much to gain from Rwanda and Rwanda has much to gain through technology within the world economy.

The people of Rwanda who seek justice within the government offices and public rooms of the parquets are consciously investing a great trust in the legal process to resolve their disputes. In the genocide cases, these disputes are of the greatest intensity. The government institutions, therefore, must display a high level of respect for the dignity of the law and the rights they enforce. Their services must be delivered on an equal or greater level of sophistication as those of religious, economic, or educational institutions. To do so requires adequate tools. With this project, the American legal profession has taken a small step in that direction.

Michael Th. Johnson is the Merrimack County attorney in Concord, New Hampshire. Ralph C. Martin II is chair of the Criminal Justice Section and district attorney of Suffolk County in Boston, Massachusetts. Robert M.A. Johnson is the Anoka County attorney in Anoka, Minnesota, and president of the National District Attorneys Association.

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