February 19, 2007 / 3:57 PM / 13 years ago

Rwanda releases 8,000 genocide prisoners

KIGALI (Reuters) - Rwanda on Monday released 8,000 prisoners accused of involvement in the country’s 1994 genocide, prompting anger from survivors of the slaughter who fear new ethnic killings.

A prisoner bids farewell to his fellow inmate who was about to be released from prison (R) in Rwanda's capital Kigali February 19, 2007. REUTERS/Arthur Asiimwe

Rwanda’s prisons have been overflowing with thousands of inmates, some convicted and others awaiting trial for their role in the murders of an estimated 800,000 Tutsis and Hutu moderates by Hutu extremists.

“The group that has been released excludes key masterminds of the genocide,” Rwanda’s chief prosecutor, Martin Ngoga, told Reuters of those freed on Monday.

Since a 2003 provisional release decreed by President Paul Kagame, the tiny central African nation has freed up to 60,000 genocide suspects including the sick, the elderly and minors.

The Rwandan government has said the releases are to ease overcrowding in the prisons and to foster reconciliation.

But as with the earlier releases, genocide survivors expressed outrage. They accuse released inmates of planning or carrying out more ethnic killings, underscoring how deep the wounds still are nearly 13 years later.

“They should ensure that they keep an eye on these people because some of them continue to harbor a genocide ideology,” said Theodore Simburudali, president of the Ibuka genocide survivors group.

Hundreds already freed have since been re-arrested after committing other crimes, many while trying to destroy evidence related to their alleged involvement in the genocide.

New York-based Human Rights Watch recently warned there could be more killings of genocide survivors by perpetrators of the massacre trying to eliminate evidence against them.

Prisoner Eustache Hakizimana, who confessed to killing two people from his village during the genocide, cried tears of joy as he was released from Kigali’s central prison on Monday.

“I never dreamt of ever moving out of that wall,” Hakizimana said, pointing to the prison. “I have spent 13 years without seeing the outside world.”

Under Rwanda’s traditional gacaca courts, criminals who confess their involvement in genocide are set free to serve half of their sentences outside of prison doing community work.

But many Rwandans say the freed inmates will face discrimination and hatred in their home villages.

Besides genocide suspects, another 1,000 people convicted of ordinary crimes have also been set free but must attend a month of training before they can go home.

Major figures in the genocide are being tried by a United Nations tribunal in Arusha, Tanzania.

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