On Monday morning I received a text message from the Police media department, gleefully informing me that they had arrested a woman at Kigali International Airport attempting to smuggle cocaine worth Rwf45 million.
The SMS then invited me to a press conference at the police headquarters to be addressed by the head of the Criminal Investigation Department.
A news reporter was assigned to write the story and off he went along with a photojournalist. Well, when the journalists got there they waited a few minutes before the ‘criminal’ was presented to the eager pack of newshounds.
Like a mannequin forced to sashay down the catwalk, Hasifa Ddungu, a 47-year old British national of Ugandan origin, was presented to the microphones and cameras. She refused to talk to the media, only saying that she “wanted to speak to a lawyer”.
While she kept silent, the head of CID Theos Badege was more than happy to fill in the blanks. He told the gathering that she was arrested on Saturday, while on transit from Bujumbura, Burundi and heading to Entebbe, Uganda.
He said that when she was searched by police they found two packets of a strange powder weighing a total of one kilogramme under her garments. “Investigations continue but she will be handed over to prosecution tomorrow (yesterday) to face the law,” said Badege.
Article 594 of the penal code states that any person who, unlawfully, makes, transforms, imports, or sells narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances within the country, shall be liable to a term of imprisonment of three to five years and/or a fine of Rwf500,000 to Rwf5 million.
And if she is found guilty, I hope they throw the book at her because I have no sympathy for drug smugglers. But her potential incarceration isn’t the point of this piece. Rather I want to talk about her parading.
One of the first things we learn in law class is the legal principle of ‘innocent until proven guilty’. It is my belief that the police parade that occurred on Monday is tantamount to the police skewing public opinion against the suspect (which we must never forget they are) and therefore making them seem guilty in the court of public opinion.
It might seem perfectly harmless (and in the public interest) but imagine this scenario. You are arrested for some crime mistakenly (which isn’t impossible) and then you are paraded in front of the entire nation’s media.
Your face is plastered in newspapers, on television and you are spoken about on the radio. The case goes to trial and guess what, you are pronounced “not guilty”.
Guess what though; although you have been found innocent, from then on when people see you or hear your name, the initial headlines are all they remember. That is the sad truth of the matter.
And I’m not even talking about cases where the police accuses someone of a crime, calls the media and then, rather quietly, release them from custody because of lack of evidence to prosecute. Either way, the poor person’s reputation and good standing in the community has been destroyed.
In some countries, releasing the name of a suspect (who then is found innocent) can be grounds for a civil suit against the police for libel.
While I know that this hasn’t happened yet here in Rwanda, police must understand that such a lawsuit is a distinct possibility.
After all, who would it hurt if the police quietly did its job, and then handed over the suspects to the prosecution services without fuss or media excitement? Then if the media wanted to follow the trial they could?
I have never felt comfortable with the parading and truth be told, it is not necessary. At all.
The writer is an editor at The New Times Publications