Criminal Justice in Rwanda
While Rwanda is investigating the possibility of moving toward a Common Law system, currently the Romano-Germanic system prevails. 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. The Rwandan judicial system is bureaucratic 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 things you know nothing about. If you are being pressured to sign before having access to a lawyer, ask to speak to 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 for 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;
- If there are reasonable grounds to suspect that the accused will try to escape;
- If 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 will either be 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 seven days to present your case to a judge, who will decide whether to release you with an “Ordinance de liberté” (subject to conditions listed below) or detain you (in prison) with an “Ordinance de detention” for a period of 30 days. After 30 days, 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. This can be a lengthy process; some accused persons have been detained for over a year before their trial date is set.
What happens when I am charged?
You will either be freed until your case is heard or you will be remanded in custody. If freed, you will have to remain in Rwanda, your passport will be confiscated, and you may be asked to report weekly to a police station. You should be judged in the status (e.g., liberty / detention) that was set by the judge.
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.
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
- 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, 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.
- 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 should 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:
- The court clerk calls upon parties to the case;
- The court clerk reads out your particulars and the offenses for which you are being charged;
- The court asks whether you admit or deny the charges;
- The prosecution provides evidence against you to the judge;
- You and your defense team present your case to the judge;
- Witnesses for the prosecution and defense are called;
- Expert witnesses and / or exhibits are heard or shown (if necessary);
- The civil party (if applicable) explains his / her claim;
- The prosecution wraps up its case;
- You or your defense team wrap up your case;
- The court clerk reads a summary of the hearing before it is signed;
- The hearing is declared closed and the presiding judge or magistrate informs the parties present when the judgement 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.
Sentences: The judgment should be confirmed within 30 days of the hearing.
The judgment should indicate the following:
- the court which delivered it;
- your details, the civil party and the person liable to pay damages;
- the offenses for which you are charged;
- an account of steps taken during the investigation and hearing;
- the submissions of the parties;
- the reasons for the judgment;
- the legal provision which has been applied;
- the offense for which the accused is convicted, if guilty;
- the sentences passed;
- the damages to pay, if any;
- a decision on seized assets, if any;
- the presence or absence of parties at the trial;
- whether the hearing was conducted in public or on camera and whether the judgment was delivered in public;
- the date and place of delivery of judgment;
- the name of any judge who disagreed with the judgment, and his / her reasons for dissenting;
- the names of trial judge(s) or magistrate(s);
- the name of the court clerk.
The judgment should also indicate an itemized bill of court costs (approximately $30 equivalent in Rwanda francs), 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 well as the court clerk present when it is delivered.
Appeal: The following persons may lodge an appeal:
- the person liable to pay damages;
- the civil party or persons who have been automatically awarded damages (civil claims only);
- 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. Parole conditions are as follows:
- If you are serving six months or less, parole will be considered after two months of imprisonment
- If you are serving longer sentences, parole will be considered once a quarter of the sentence has been served
- If you are serving a life term, parole will be considered after ten years
You will not be considered for parole if you are guilty of one of the following crimes: genocide or crimes against humanity, terrorism, pedophilia, 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 the Republic 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.
The Prison System and Prison Conditions
After Sentence: After being sentenced, you could be taken to any of the 15 prisons in Rwanda. But it is most likely you will be sent to "1930" prison in the capital, Kigali.
Prison Rules: Sex, drugs, alcohol and cigarettes are strictly forbidden.
General Prison Conditions
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 being supervised by female staff.
From the 2007 U.S. Department of State Human Rights Report:
Conditions in prisons and detention centers were harsh. Due to the large number of individuals convicted of genocide‑related offenses since gacaca hearings began nationwide in July 2006, the population in the country's 16 central prisons rose to approximately 98,000 persons in July (compared with 87,000 at the end of 2006), but then declined to 58,598 prisoners at year's end as a result of the government's change in the gacaca sentencing structure. In the fall the government closed two of the more decrepit of the 16 central prisons; 14 prisons remained.
The government remained committed to improving prison and detention center conditions, and reports of abuse of prisoners and detainees markedly declined. International observers and local human rights groups reported that torture or abuse of detainees in prisons was rare and not tolerated by officials; however, police in a few police detention facilities sometimes beat newly arrested suspects to obtain confessions, although such incidents also sharply decreased during the year. During the year authorities relieved several prison directors of their duties and dismissed several dozen other prison officials for misconduct and corruption.
Sanitary conditions in prisons and detention centers were poor and deteriorated with the rapid increase in the prison population from January to May; conditions improved somewhat as prisoners were released from June through the end of the year. The government continued to improve prison healthcare but was unable to provide adequate medical treatment. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) halted food assistance to the 16 main prisons in 2006; however, the government's increased food budget to replace the ICRC contribution was insufficient, and family members supplemented food provisions. The government did not provide food to prisoners in smaller jails. In police stations, the government did not feed detainees awaiting hearings or transfers. Police regularly told crime victims that if they did not provide food to the accused, the accused would be released. In other cases, prisoners transferred from police jails to national prisons had not been fed for several days. The ICRC provided additional expertise and medical, logistical, and material support to improve conditions for inmates. There were a number of deaths in prison during the year, largely the result of preventable diseases and suspected cases of HIV/AIDS. The government began an HIV/AIDS counseling and treatment program in three prisons in 2006 and two more during the year. International observers reported that prison deaths from preventable disease and other causes had stabilized at rates approximately similar to those found in the general population.
National prison policy prohibits the hiring of prisoners to perform work at private residences and businesses. However, community service was often part of a prison sentence for those who confessed to genocide-related crimes, and prisoners may work (uncompensated) on community projects such as building roads and bridges. Prisoners charged with criminal offenses unrelated to the genocide were not eligible to volunteer for work details. Prisoners often volunteered for such details, which provided time away from overcrowded prisons and in some cases extra privileges.
Living conditions for women were generally better than those for men, as detention areas were less crowded. While male prisoners often shared large sleeping platforms, female prisoners were housed in their own block with separate beds. In some cases adult prisoners had access to the juvenile wards. There were reports of abuse of minors, both by other minors and by the adult prison population, especially among males.
Pretrial detainees generally were separated from convicted prisoners; however, there were numerous exceptions as a result of the large number of genocide detainees awaiting trial. The remaining high-profile political prisoner, former transport minister Ntakarutinka, was kept in a special section of the Kigali "1930" prison. The ICRC reported unimpeded access on an unannounced basis to the country's 16 prisons during the year, and LIPRODHOR reported similar ease of access to 15 of the 16 prisons. The government also permitted independent monitoring of prison conditions by diplomats and journalists. The ICRC continued its visits to communal jails and military-supervised jails.
Drugs: Drugs are strictly forbidden, but that does not prevent small quantities of marajuana 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 a doctor visits prisons daily from the nearest hospital. It is unlikely that a doctor who speaks English will treat you. He may speak some French, but most likely Kinyarwanda.
The quality of medical facilities and training is very low in Rwanda. 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.
HIV / AIDS is a significant problem in prisons: If you have a long-standing medical problem and have received treatment for it in the US, it may be useful if you have your medical records, or at least a report, sent from your doctor in the US. Your US 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 US 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 fulfil 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. (Note: as of Summer 2008 visitors need written permission from the Ministry of Interior to deliver food. Alternately, they can provide funds to the prison social worker, which will allow the prisoner to buy food at the canteen.)
You will be given two basic meals a day:
- Breakfast - sorghum porridge
- Lunch/ Dinner - Ugali (maizemeal) and bean
Mail: 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. But 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 US 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 prisons 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:
The bureaucratic procedures they can expect to encounterproviding notice of a visit to the prison authorities
- 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 are to –
- 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).