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Uganda urges traditional justice for rebel crimes

Wed 30 May 2007, 14:46 GMT
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By Tim Cocks

KAMPALA (Reuters) - Uganda's government urged donors and human rights groups on Wednesday to accept traditional clan-based justice systems as an alternative to jail sentences for dealing with rebel war crimes.

The government and Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), one of Africa's most feared rebel groups, are due to resume peace talks on Thursday aimed at ending two decades of bloodshed.

But the LRA say they will not sign any deal unless the International Criminal Court (ICC) drops indictments against their four LRA top commanders. That has prompted officials to suggest traditional reconciliation rituals as an alternative.

The head of the government peace team, Internal Affairs Minister Ruhakana Rugunda, told journalists on Wednesday he wanted critics to take the proposal more seriously.

"Our traditions have sustained our societies for centuries. Instead of abandoning (them) ... and jumping into Western solutions, Uganda (may) decide to stick with our traditions," he said. "They have resolved conflicts in the past."

Traditional leaders from the LRA's Acholi tribe -- who have been the main victims of attacks by the rest of the LRA, including the abduction of their children as recruits -- want LRA leader Joseph Kony and his henchmen to undergo "Mato Oput" justice.

The ritual involves a murderer facing relatives of the victim and admitting his crime before both drink a bitter brew made from a tree root mixed with sheep's blood.

But rights groups remain unconvinced.

Human Rights Watch said any alternative to the Hague-based ICC would have to reflect the gravity of the crimes committed by the LRA.

"Fair and credible prosecutions with appropriate penalties will tell would-be perpetrators that no one is above the law," the group said in a statement on Wednesday, warning only hefty prison sentences would achieve this.

But many Ugandans in the war-torn north, weary of a conflict that has killed thousands and forced 1.7 million into miserable camps, see the ICC as an obstacle to peace.

The ICC insists it is being made a scapegoat.

"The most important thing is the acceptance of the justice system by the victims," Uganda's Foreign Affairs State Minister Oryem Okello told Reuters. "Most Acholis want Kony to be forgiven after going through Mato Oput."

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