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Criminal Justice in Rwanda

Rwanda has a dual legal system that includes both the Romano Germanic system, namely civil law, and common law. In 2013, Rwanda continued its gradual transition to a common law based system. Although there are many similarities between the two systems—for example, prisoners are presumed innocent until proven guilty and they have rights to legal representation, an interpreter, a fair trial and an appeal—there are fundamental differences, the main one being the absence of the jury system and only the prosecution lawyers prepare an investigation, while defense lawyers do not. The Rwandan judicial system is heavily bureaucratized and cases can be delayed significantly.

If you are arrested or otherwise under detention, you should never sign anything you cannot read or understand.  It may be a confession and/or could include information which can worsen your situation.  If you are pressured to sign before having access to a lawyer, ask to speak to the Consular Section of the U.S. Embassy.  Article 36 of the Vienna Consular Convention of 1963 requires that host country officials inform prisoners of their right to communicate with their Consular Officer.  This agreement also guarantees the right of “timely access” to the prisoner by the Consular Officer.

What happens when I am arrested?

You can only be detained at a police station for the following reasons:

  • The alleged offense committed is punishable by a minimum of two years imprisonment;
  • There are reasonable grounds to suspect that you will try to escape;
  • Your identity is unknown or disputed.

The police officer will record and make four copies of the statement of the arrest, of which:

  • One is transmitted to the competent public prosecutor;
  • One is filed in the criminal case file;
  • One given to the officer in charge of the remand prison;
  • One is given to the accused.

You have the right to be informed of the exact charges against you and to a lawyer to assist you with your statement.  The statement can be made in English, French, or Kinyarwanda.  If you are not conversant in any of these three languages, you have the right to an interpreter.

The Arrest Procedure

For how long can I be remanded in custody?

You can be held in the police station for 72 hours.   After this, your case is transferred to the prosecutor’s office, which has an additional five days (Article 37 of the Penal Procedure Code) to present your case to a judge, who will decide whether to release you with an “Ordonnance de liberté” (subject to conditions listed below) or detain you (in prison) with an “Ordonnance de detention” for a period of a month.  After a month, you again will be brought before the judge.  The judge can extend your period for another 30 days if the case is still being investigated with no trial date set.  Pre-trail investigation, and subsequent detention, can be very lengthy.

What happens when I am charged?

You will either be freed until your case is heard or you will be remanded in custody.  The judge decides on your status, i.e. liberty or detention. If freed, you must remain in Rwanda. Your passport will be confiscated and you may be asked to report weekly to a police station. 

At your first hearing before a court you should be notified of your rights.  In theory, these are:

  • The right to an interpreter;
  • The right to consult a lawyer;
  • The right to appeal against a charge ;
  • The right to be visited at a reasonable time by Consular staff, and by members of your family;
  • If unwell, the right to be examined by a doctor.

Legal Representation

U.S. Embassy Consular staff cannot give legal advice, but they can provide you with a list of lawyers, most of whom speak English, French, and Kinyarwanda. 

Categories of Charges

Serious Offenses

  • A felony is a crime punishable mainly by imprisonment of more than five years.  Felonies are tried at the “Haut Court,” or High Court, with only one appeal available.
    Possible examples (not exhaustive) include: murder, rape, armed robbery, political incitement, genocide speech, treason, drugs, major fraud.
  • A misdemeanor is a crime punishable mainly by imprisonment of a term exceeding six months but not exceeding five years.  Misdemeanor crimes are tried in the “Tribunal de Grand Instance,” with two appeals available.

Possible examples include: Civil / commercial disputes and corruption.

Minor Offenses

  • A petty offense is a crime punishable by imprisonment not exceeding six months or by a fine.  Petty offences are tried at the “Tribunal de Base,” with three appeals available.
    Possible examples (not exhaustive) include: traffic offenses (including drunk driving), petty theft.  

Can I get Bail?

Yes, but it must be paid by a person of “high moral standing” (the guarantor).  The decision rests with the judge.  You will have to surrender your passport to the Rwandese authorities to prevent you from leaving the country.  If you do leave the country, the guarantor must forfeit the bail set by the judge, and other penalties may apply.  The guarantor must pay compensation for any damages caused by the accused.

Interpreters and Translators

The use of interpreters and translators is permitted, although you will likely have to hire one yourself.  The Government of Rwanda is required to provide them in theory, but in practice this is very difficult and can subject your trial to lengthy bureaucratic delays.

What happens at the trial?

A summons setting out the offense, the law punishing the offense, and whether you will appear in person or be represented by a counsel, will be read.

The presiding judge or magistrate will conduct the trial in the following order:

  1. The court clerk calls upon parties to the case;
  2. The court clerk reads out your information; i.e. name, date of birth, place of residence etc.; particulars and the offenses for which you are being charged;
  3. The court asks whether you admit or deny the charges;
  4. The prosecution provides evidence against you to the judge;
  5. You and your defense team present your case to the judge;
  6. Witnesses for the prosecution and defense are called;
  7. Expert witnesses and/or exhibits are heard or shown (if necessary);
  8. The civil party (if applicable) explains his/her claim;
  9. The prosecution wraps up its case;

10.  You or your defense team wrap up your case;

11.  The court clerk reads a summary of the hearing before it is signed;

12.  The hearing is declared closed and the presiding judge or magistrate informs the parties present when the judgment will be delivered (maximum 30 days).
Hearings are conducted in public.  However, a court can order the hearing to be conducted on camera (not broadcast to the public) if it deems the case detrimental to the public good.

After Conviction

Sentences: The judgment should be confirmed within 30 days of the hearing.

The judgment should indicate the following:

  1. the court which delivered it;
  2. your information; i.e. name, date of birth, place of residence etc., the civil party and the person liable to pay damages;
  3. the offenses for which you are charged;
  4. an account of steps taken during the investigation and hearing;
  5. the submissions of the parties;
  6. the reasons for the judgment;
  7. the legal provision which has been applied;
  8. the offense for which the accused is convicted, if guilty;
  9. the sentences passed;

10.  the damages to pay, if any;

11.  a decision on seized assets, if any;

12.  the presence or absence of parties at the trial;

13.  whether the hearing was conducted in public or on camera and whether the judgment was delivered in public;

14.  the date and place of delivery of judgment;

15.  the name of any judge who disagreed with the judgment, and his/her reasons for dissenting;

16.  the names of trial judge(s) or magistrate(s);

17.  the name of the court clerk.

The judgment should also indicate an itemized bill of court costs (they depend on the length of the judgment as well as on the quality of the supplies used), prepared by a court clerk and approved by the president of the court, and mention the timeframe within which to file an appeal.

The trial judges or magistrates sign the judgment as does the court clerk present when it is delivered.

Appeal: The following persons may lodge an appeal:

  1. you;
  2. the person liable to pay damages;
  3. the civil party or persons who have been automatically awarded damages (civil claims only);
  4. The prosecution.

An appeal should be lodged within 30 days of the judgment.

Parole: Parole, known as conditional release in Rwanda, is possible.  You must serve at least one quarter of the sentence before it will be considered.

Parole will be considered for good behavior or if you suffer from serious and incurable diseases diagnosed by 3 doctors (New law 2013 – Article 245 of the Penal Procedure Code)

Parole conditions are as follows:

  1. If you are serving six months or less and up to five years, parole will be considered after serving a third of your sentence;
  2. If you are serving longer sentences; for sentences of more than 5 years, parole will be considered once a two thirds of the sentence has been served;
  3. And if you are serving a life term, parole will be considered after twenty years.

Parole can be revoked.

You will not be considered for parole if you are guilty of one of the following crimes: genocide or crimes against humanity, terrorism, sexual violence on children, treason, or espionage.

Fines: Fines and court fees must be paid to a court clerk within eight days of the final judgment.

Deportation: The Minister of Interior and Director of Immigration can deport foreign nationals deemed undesirable, or who could compromise or threaten national security or public order.

After being declared undesirable, foreign nationals can be sentenced to between 8 and 15 days in prison and fined.  All foreigners who enter or remain in Rwanda illegally can be deported with no legal recourse.

Clemency: The President of Rwanda can grant clemency.

Extradition: There is no extradition treaty between the United States and Rwanda.

Transfers: There is no Prisoner Transfer Agreement between the United States and Rwanda.

General Prison Conditions

After Sentence: After being sentenced, you could be taken to any of the prisons in Rwanda; each province has at least one prison, but it is most likely you will be sent to "1930" prison or Kimironko Prison located in Kigali. 

Prison Rules: Sex, drugs, alcohol and cigarettes are strictly forbidden.

Rwanda's prison population, although declining, remains well in excess of its official capacity, with overcrowding a significant problem.  The number of inmates to each cell entirely depends on the size of the cell and the number of prisoners in the particular prison. You may find yourself sharing a sleeping platform with several other prisoners, rather than having your own bed. Women and men are housed separately; the latter are supervised by female staff.

From the 2012 U.S. Department of State Human Rights Report in Rwanda:

Prison and detention center conditions were harsh, although the government made numerous improvements during the year of 2012. Police sometimes beat newly arrested suspects to obtain confessions. There were numerous reports of detainee abuse and lengthy illegal detention by police intelligence at Kwa Gacinya detention center in Kigali. There were reports that J-2 military intelligence personnel employed torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment to obtain confessions in military detention centers, although less frequently than in the previous year. The SSF increasingly used safe houses to detain and interrogate “security” detainees and military officials accused of insubordination. The government selectively permitted visits by independent human rights observers.

At the end of 2012 the prison population was 55,618, over 90 percent of whom were men. A total of 333 prisoners were juveniles. The system was designed for 54,700. Men and women were held separately in similar conditions, Living conditions for women are generally better than those for men, as detention areas were less crowded. Fewer than 100 children under the age of three lived with their parents in prison. The Rwanda Correctional Services (RCS) provided five nursery schools, one psychosocial center, and fresh milk for such children. All juveniles were held at Nyagatare Rehabilitation Center or in special wings of regular prisons. There were no reports of abuse of juveniles, and the RCS continued to improve access to lawyers, education, and job training for juveniles. Individuals convicted of genocide-related offenses comprised a majority of the adult prison population. Authorities generally separated pretrial detainees from convicted prisoners; however, there were numerous exceptions due to the large number of detainees awaiting trial.

In 2012, prisoner deaths resulted from anemia, HIV/AIDS, respiratory diseases, malaria, and other diseases at rates similar to those found in the general population. Medical care in prisons was commensurate with care for the public at large. The government enrolled all prisoners in the national health insurance plan. Prisoners had access to potable water. The Ministry of Internal Security (MININTER) implemented a 2011 directive taking full responsibility to provide food for prisoners through contracted cafeteria services, canteens, and prison gardens. Family members were permitted to supplement the diets of vulnerable prisoners with health issues. Ventilation and temperature conditions improved as overcrowding continued to decline. According to the RCS, each prison had dormitories, toilets, sports facilities, a health center, a guest hall, a kitchen, water, and electricity, as required by a 2006 presidential order governing prison conditions.

Conditions in police and military detention centers varied. Overcrowding was common in police detention centers, and poor ventilation often led to high temperatures. Provision of food and medical care was inconsistent, and some detainees claimed to have gone for several days without food. There were complaints regarding inadequate sanitation in some detention centers, and not all detention centers had toilets. There were numerous reports of substandard conditions for civilians held in military detention centers.

Gikondo Transit Center, where Kigali authorities held street children, vagrants, suspected prostitutes, and street sellers, continued to operate despite a Senate committee’s 2008 call for its closure due to substandard conditions. Two other transit centers, where conditions generally met basic international standards, operated under the management of the Ministry of Gender and Family Promotion (MIGEPROF), as did one transit center under church management. Hundreds of male transit center detainees and at-risk youth between the ages of 18 and 35 were transferred to the Iwawa Rehabilitation and Vocational Development Center on Iwawa Island, where substandard sanitation and nutrition resulted in disease outbreaks and several deaths. During 2012 there were reports of individuals drowning while attempting to escape. There were also reports the RDF recruited individuals from Iwawa to join the M23 armed group in the DRC.

The Nyagatare Rehabilitation Center for juveniles continued renovations with the assistance of the Dignity in Detention Foundation and UNICEF to align with rehabilitative priorities. In May the government amended the penal code to allow community service as alternative sentencing for misdemeanors and petty offenses, and the Ministry of Justice (MINIJUST) instructed judges to utilize alternative sentencing to incarceration for nonviolent offenders during the first half of the year. MININTER granted conditional release to 1,421 prisoners in May. The law provides for an ombudsman who has the power to carry out investigations of prisons. The ombudsman also receives and examines complaints from individuals and independent associations relating to civil servants, state organs, and private institutions. Prisoners and detainees had weekly access to visitors and were permitted religious observance. Prison staff held regular meetings with prisoners and detainees to listen to inmates’ complaints and take action to resolve them when possible. The MININTER permanent secretary personally inspected all prisons and took steps to hire staff for a human rights inspectorate within the ministry. The chief of defense staff supervised detention reform efforts in MINADEF.

The government permitted independent monitoring of prison conditions by diplomats, as well as the International Committee of the Red Cross, which reported unimpeded access on an unannounced basis to all the prisons, police stations, and military facilities that it visited during 2012. Journalists may access prisons with a valid press card but must request permission from the RCS commissioner to interview or take photos.

There were continued improvements in treatment of the general prison population. Overcrowding in prisons continued to decline. Unannounced quarterly inspections by the MININTER permanent secretary led to improved recordkeeping and treatment of prisoners in RCS facilities, while periodic monitoring by the MINADEF chief of defense staff led to a reduction in reported abuses at military detention facilities.

Drugs: Drugs are strictly forbidden, but that does not prevent small quantities of marijuana and cocaine entering the confines of the prison.  Prison security is tough and if you are caught with drugs you will spend time in solitary confinement (up to a maximum of 15 days).

Health and Hygiene: If you need medical or dental treatment, you should ask to see the prison authorities. Basic medical attention is free of charge. There are no resident prison doctors, but nurses are present every day and a doctor visits prisons daily from the nearest hospital.  It is unlikely that a doctor who speaks English will treat you.  He may speak French, but most likely only Kinyarwanda. If the doctor is unable to treat you, you will be sent to the nearest local hospital.   If you need specialist medication or complex treatment, you will be expected to pay all associated costs.

HIV/AIDS is a significant problem in prisons. If you have a long-standing medical problem and have received treatment for it in the U.S., it may be useful if you have your medical records, or at least a report, sent from your doctor.  Your doctor can send the report, via the Embassy, addressed to you.

There are basic washing facilities, and it is possible to shower every day.  Hot water is generally not available. The Consular Officer from the U.S. Embassy can help provide basic amenities as well as ensure you are receiving adequate food and medical care and not being mistreated.

Food and Drink: There is minimal provision of food within the prison.  Prison food is free, but is rarely sufficient to fulfill your dietary needs.  You will need funds to supplement your diet.  Extra food can either be purchased at the canteen or brought to you by visitors.

You will be given two basic meals a day:

  • Breakfast - sorghum porridge
  • Lunch/ Dinner - Ugali (maize meal) and bean

Mail and Personal Posessions: All letters are opened and checked by prison staff before they are given to prisoners.  Mail cannot be sent directly to Rwandan prisons from the US. 

Can I have a radio, CD player, cassette recorder and television? Yes if you can afford them, and it will depend on the situation in prison, as these items will attract unwanted attention from other prisoners.

Can I make telephone calls? No.  In emergencies the prison authorities will let you use the phone in their office.  Mobile phones are prohibited.

Work: You will likely be expected to work either in the prison or on the outside.  Prisoners’ work ranges from construction and road sweeping to working in the prison kitchen.  Prison authorities keep most of your earnings as a contribution to your up-keep.

Leisure & Education: Prison facilities in Rwanda are basic.  All prisons except Mpanga have study rooms.  Pens and paper are provided, but resources are limited.  Consular staff at the U.S. Embassy can gather reading materials for American prisoners.

English is spoken less commonly than French or Kinyarwanda, so you may want to learn French and Kinyarwanda, which will help communicate your needs and ease the boredom and mental isolation of prison life.  The central prison in Kigali (“1930”) offers English lessons for inmates.

Exercise is encouraged.  You are free to walk around the prison compound all day and on occasion prisoners are taken out to play soccer or basketball.

Consular Visits: Consular staff will visit you once every three months, though if there is an emergency they can make a special visit.  Consular Officers can assist with obtaining funds and checking on your property, as well as passing messages to your friends and family.

Family and friends may visit twice per week.  Your lawyer can visit as many times as necessary. 

Foreign visitors must apply in writing to the Minister of Interior for permission to visit.  This is just a formality and permission is likely to be granted.  You should provide your visitors with information about:

Registering with the U.S. Embassy in advance of their trip.  They can register with the Embassy at

The bureaucratic procedures they can expect to encounter providing notice of a visit to the prison authorities include the following:

  • how many visits they can arrange
  • general information on Rwanda (available at U.S. Embassy Kigali Website.)
  • what happens when they reach the prison;
  • everything you know about the ‘do’s and don’ts’ of visiting;

A few other useful tips:

  • pass on the name of the consular staff member you have most contact with;
  • check that visiting times and procedures have not changed;
  • let them know what they can bring in for you (i.e., locally bought tobacco, but not duty-free).