Rwandan officials announced Wednesday that they will publicly execute dozens of defendants convicted in connection with the 1994 genocide in the Central African nation--a decision that alarmed human rights groups and foreign legal experts, some of whom called on the international community to intervene to stop the killings.
The Rwandan government, in a communique broadcast on state radio, said the executions will "act as a lesson to people who do not respect the life of others" and will serve as a warning to those "still bent on pursuing genocide."
It invited Rwandans to go to a soccer stadium in the capital, Kigali, and to sites in four provincial towns Friday to witness the displays of capital punishment, reportedly to be carried out by firing squads.
Human rights advocates denounced the government's plans to put to death what some reports said will be as many as 33 genocide defendants.
The international observers expressed deep concern about the fairness of the legal proceedings, as Rwanda's judicial system has been plagued by disorder and a lack of lawyers, judges and money.
"If the executions are not the product of a system that is perceived as wholly impartial, credible and effective, it may do more harm than good," said Peter Takirambudde, executive director for Human Rights Watch/Africa. "It may contribute to breeding the perception of an eye for an eye."
The executions would be the first since the Rwandan government started to put on trial suspects accused of participating in the Hutu government-orchestrated genocide that killed more than 800,000 people, most of them ethnic Tutsis or moderate Hutus. Some observers said they will simply worsen ethnic strife and undermine Rwanda's push for peace.
"It is yet another step away from justice and from reconciliation," said Adotei Akwei, an Africa specialist with Amnesty International USA in Washington. "It furthers the flawed process of justice."
Akwei said that Amnesty will appeal to the global community--including the Clinton administration, which recently announced it will give $30 million to Rwanda, Burundi and Congo to improve their judicial systems--to prevent the executions.
In Washington, State Department officials said they were still studying the situation and declined to comment on it.
But U.S. officials have reacted positively before to Rwanda's judiciary. "The country has a daunting task of dealing with the cases of more than 130,000 people accused of genocide," a spokesman said. "While the process has been slow, so far we have been encouraged by the transparency of the court proceedings and the respect for judicial norms."
There are more than 100,000 people still awaiting trial in overcrowded, unsanitary jails across Rwanda. At least 330 people have been put on trial on various charges relating to the genocide; 116 have been convicted and sentenced to die.
Survivors of the genocide have complained that the Rwandan government and a United Nations tribunal have been painfully slow in deciding the genocide cases. But some news agencies have reported that Rwandan judges, as opposed to international authorities, sometimes take as little as a day to dispose of matters before them.
The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda has been working through genocide cases since November 1996 in the northeast Tanzanian town of Arusha. A source close to the U.N. body said the planned executions might encourage other defendants to plea bargain in hopes of receiving lesser sentences.
These public spectacles also might satisfy a very real lust for vengeance, allowing Rwanda's judiciary to be less harsh with remaining prisoners, the source said, adding: "There's no way they could just execute everyone. The international community would never allow it."
President Clinton recently said the U.S. and the world should have done more to stop the Rwandan genocide, which occurred between April and July 1994. It ended only when rebel forces drove the former Hutu government from power.
Times staff writer Norman Kempster in Washington contributed to this report.