Civil society welcomes presidential pardon of abortion convicts

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Justice minister Johnston Busingye. / File

President Paul Kagame’s decision to pardon girls and women convicted of abortion has drawn praise from civil society.

Sixty-two convicts were pardoned during an extraordinary Cabinet meeting chaired by President Kagame, last Friday.

Edward Munyamaliza, the president of the Civil Society Platform, told The New Times that although it was not the first time such presidential pardon was being announced, this was still a “unique decision.”

“Despite pardoning abortion convicts, we all know that he [the President] passed a presidential order pardoning Genocide convicts who confessed their involvement in the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi,” Munyamaliza said.

“Pardoning these women and girls will allow them another chance to reflect on the wrong decision they took at that time and encourage others not to make similar mistakes.”

Johnston Busingye, the minister for justice, explained that the President was exercising his constitutional right under the prerogative of mercy.

The beneficiaries were girls who, at the time of conviction, were under 16.

In March, Rwanda Law Reform Commission (RLRC) proposed that the law on abortion should be relaxed to allow easy approval of abortion without a woman having to go through rigorous court procedures.

Some lawmakers and a section of the public also backed the proposal, but the review is yet to be done.

“The Law Reform Commission proposed that abortion provisions in the Penal Code be relaxed to allow abortion to be decided by doctors rather than courts. The amendment proposal will be sent to Cabinet and Parliament early next year. I trust that appropriate provisions on the issue will be proposed and passed,” Busingye said.

‘Pardon not for granted’

On whether presidential pardon could encourage more abortion cases, Busingye said “that is simply not possible.”

“Abortion is naturally not a light decision to make, especially because it is potentially life-threatening. Those who do it know the threat it poses to their overall as well as reproductive health,” he said.

“It is not such a tempting, enjoyable or rewarding action. It is, in many cases, a choice imposed on a girl or woman by a set of specific circumstances they find themselves and the unborn child in.”

The minister argued that the President’s pardon sends a message that he knows that they committed offences, which upset and hurt other individuals or society.

“He is nevertheless prepared, because of their age and nature of offence, to give them an opportunity to pick themselves up and reshape their lives, and pursue life’s opportunities like all other free citizens,” he said.

“He trusts, as a parent and as President, that they will make the most of the freedom given to them.”

Munyamaliza echoed Busingye’s comments, noting that convicting someone and sentencing them to a prison term is usually aimed at “allowing criminals time to reflect on their mistakes rather than punishing them.”

“As civil society, we welcome this move by the President and we laud him on giving these people another chance to contribute to their own wellbeing as well as the development of the country,” Munyamaliza said.

On proposal to “relax” the law on abortion, Munyamaliza said the civil society maintains its stance against anything that goes against the Rwandan culture and values.

“The law we have now about abortion is clear and relaxed enough. We don’t need any more changes unless we want to compromise with the Rwandan culture and values. We will not support any changes to that,” Munyamaliza said.

He argued that creating more exceptions in the abortion law would allow people to abort “unnecessarily.”

Although abortion is a criminal offence under the Rwandan law, the practice has a waiver under Article 165 of the Penal Code that absolve from any criminal liability a woman who procures abortion or a medical doctor who facilitates the abortion in case of pregnancy as a result of incest, rape, forced marriage, and when the continuation of a pregnancy seriously threatens the health of the unborn baby or the pregnant woman.

But for the waiver to come into force, a professional doctor and a competent court of law must have authorised the procedure to terminate the pregnancy.

However, pro-abortion activists and some legal minds argue that such sections, introduced in the Penal Code ostensibly to prevent unnecessary abortions, present lengthy bureaucracies in processing legal authorisation before one can procure an abortion.

Besides, they say, the article does not specify the actual time within which an individual can decide whether to terminate or keep the pregnancy, arguing that this could ultimately endanger the life of the mother seeking to terminate a pregnancy.

editorial@newtimes.co.rw