Related topics

Aid Official: Refugee Teens Languishing in Jails, More Face Same Fate

November 29, 1996

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Rwandan refugees barely in their teens are languishing in overcrowded jails in their homeland and new returnees could face the same fate, a private aid group warned Friday after visiting the region.

``Some may be guilty _ they’re both perpetrators and victims _ but they’re still kids caught up in a frenzy they couldn’t control,″ said Robert Kramer, a vice president of Save the Children. ``And some are innocent and they ought to be freed as quickly as possible.″

Earlier this year, a U.N. report criticized prison conditions in Rwanda, saying jails in the capital Kigali house 10,000 inmates _ most of them suspected in the 1994 massacres _ in a space meant for 2,000. Countrywide, some 88,000 prisoners are awaiting trial in Rwandan jails, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross, and more than 1,700 of them are teen-agers, the U.N. report estimated.

Kramer, who returned earlier this week from a nine-day trip to Rwanda, reported that over 150 prisoners ages 14-18 await trial in Kigali.

``Some that are 14 now were only 11 and a half or so at the time of the massacres,″ he said, noting the inhumane conditions and saying the justice system in Rwanda is deplorably slow _ especially now.

Kramer formerly headed the U.S. government’s ``Food for Peace″ program.

Joan Ablett, an associate director of Save the Children, said the teen-agers included a handful of young women. Ms. Ablett, who travelled with Kramer, said the director of the Kigali prison only shook his head when asked what he would do with more inmates.

Kramer predicted that more Rwandan refugees now making their way home by the thousands, including teen-agers, will be arrested if they are identified as having taken part in the killing of Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

And Rwandan authorities are in no hurry to bring youngsters to trial because they want to punish the ringleaders first, he added. ``The best thing that could happen to them would be swift justice.″

Sen. Nancy Kassebaum, R-Kan, who visited the Kigali prison early last year, decried the state of Rwanda’s justice system.

``I remain convinced that no long term stability will be achieved in the region until Rwanda’s criminal justice system is made to function.″ she wrote in an opinion column that appeared Friday in The Washington Post. ``Unfortunately, progress in this era has been unacceptably slow.″

Tutsis now dominate Rwanda after the civil war that followed the massacres. About 600,000 Hutu refugees have returned to Rwanda over the last few days, largely from Zaire, Rwanda’s western neighbor.

In Tanzania, rumors of arrests in Rwanda circulated among half a million refugees still in camps. But U.N. human rights monitors in Rwanda said they could only confirm 21 arrests among returning refugees.