From increasing the judge's discretionary powers to reduce a possible life sentence to at least 15 years of imprisonment – depending on mitigating circumstances – to prescribing tougher penalties for false accusations against another person, Rwanda’s newly revised penal law has brought about significant changes to the country’s criminal justice system. The new law to amend the one that has been in force since August 30, 2018, determining offences and penalties in general, was published in the Official Gazette of December 5, 2023, after a parliamentary approval. ALSO READ: What are the four key proposed changes to Rwanda’s penal law? The New Times examines the key changes in the new penal law: Humiliation or insult against foreign officials no longer criminal According to the new law, article 218 of the law of 2018 determining offences and penalties in general is repealed. Article 218 provided that any person who publicly humiliates or insults one of the persons referred to under article 217 of the 2018 law commits an offence. Upon conviction, he/she is liable to imprisonment for a term of not less than three years and not more than five years. Persons referred to under article 217 in question are foreign Heads of State; and representatives of foreign countries or international organisations while in Rwanda in the performance of their functions. Life sentence for infanticide, but reduced penalty in case of postpartum depression The new law introduced an amendment to Article 108 of law of 2018 determining offences and penalties in general. Article 108 of the 2018 penal code provided that any woman, who is convicted of intentionally or by omission killing her biological child whose age is not above 12 months, but during the commission of the offense she was in postpartum depression, or by effect of lactation, is liable to imprisonment for a term of not less than five years but not exceeding seven years. Now, a new article specified that a person who kills his or her biological child whose age is not above 12 months, is liable to life imprisonment, upon conviction. However, it adds, if a woman convicted of infanticide has committed it due to postpartum depression or by effect of lactation certified by an authorised medical doctor or an authorised psychiatrist, she is liable to imprisonment for a term of not less than six months but not more than two years. Life sentence can be reduced to 15 years As per the new legislation, if a judge approves mitigating circumstances, he or she may reduce life imprisonment to a penalty of imprisonment of not less than 15 years. This applies to all crimes, including genocide and child defilement followed by cohabitation, for which mitigating circumstances were not considered. ALSO READ: The Supreme Court ruling that ‘triggered’ a review of sentencing laws This is a major change compared to the provisions of the 2018 legislation. Article 60 of the 2018 penal code stipulated that in case of mitigating circumstances, subject to the provisions of Article 107, life imprisonment may be reduced but it cannot be less than 25 years. It is worth mentioning that article 107 of the 2018 law talked about voluntary murder and its punishment, providing that a person who intentionally kills another person is liable to life imprisonment, upon conviction. Possibility to slash a fixed-term imprisonment of six months and above A fixed-term imprisonment from six months and above may be reduced but it cannot be less than a half of the minimum sentence provided for the offence committed, according to the new law. In the previous penal law, a fixed-term imprisonment could be reduced but not be less than the minimum sentence provided for the offence committed. Judge may suspend imprisonment of less than six months A penalty of imprisonment of less than six months may be suspended, while a penalty of community service may also be suspended. This was not provided for by the 2018 legislation. Meanwhile, a fine may be reduced up to a quarter of the minimum fine provided for the offence committed. Such a provision implies that an offender can pay a smaller fee compared to the previous period as the 2018 penal code specified that a fine may be reduced but it cannot be less than the minimum provided for the offence committed. First offenders to benefit from suspended sentence As an amendment to article 64 of the 2018 law determining offences and penalties in general, the new legislation provides that if the convicted person was not previously convicted of another penalty of imprisonment exceeding six months, the court may, through a reasoned decision, order suspension of the execution of all or part of the principal or accessory penalty imposed provided that the principal penalty does not exceed five years. Before the amendment, the article in question provided that suspension of a penalty is ordered based on the gravity of the offence and that the penalty of a fine and that of community service may not be subject to suspension. Defilement becomes ‘a crime that lasts forever' The new law has made child defilement an imprescriptible crime –an offense whose offenders can be prosecuted anytime regardless of lapsed time since its commission. Before the promulgation of the new law, defilement was among crimes – felonies – whose criminal action lapses after 10 years. Child rights activists and legal experts argued that the situation was resulting in a situation where defilement offenders in Rwanda could evade justice 10 years after committing the crime, and move freely thereafter. ALSO READ: Defilement offenders face ‘legal action at any point in their lives’ The law defines defilement as sexual acts committed on a child, including inserting a sexual organ of a person into the sexual organ, anus or mouth of a child; inserting any organ of the human body into a sexual organ or anus of a child; or performing any other act on the body of a child for sexual arousal. Tougher sentence for false accusations As per the new legislation, a person who knowingly makes false accusations against another person before judicial organs, commits an offence. Upon conviction, he or she is liable to imprisonment for a term of not less than one year but not more than three years, and a fine of not less than Rwf500,000 but not more than Rwf1 million. It adds that if false accusations are made in a criminal case where the accused is sentenced to imprisonment for a term of more than five years, the person having knowingly made such false accusations against him or her is liable to imprisonment for a term of not less than three years but not more than five years, and a fine of not less than Rwf1 million but not more than Rwf2 million. In the 2018 law, article 152 provided that a person convicted of false accusations against another person before an investigator, a prosecutor or a judge, was liable to imprisonment for a term of not less than two months but less than six months and a fine of not less than Rwf300,000 and not more than Rwf500,000, or only one of the penalties. Deceitful property transfer criminalised The new legislation introduced a provision on obstructing or preventing the enforcement of a final enforcement order [an order issued by a court compelling a party that lost a case to comply with a judgment, such as payment of a due amount or compensations]. According to the provision, a person who disposes of his or her property [transfers his/her property to the control or ownership of another] or performs any other act to obstruct or prevent the execution of a final enforcement order commits an offence. Upon conviction, he or she is liable to imprisonment for a term not less than six months but not more than two years. Consent to abortion attracts same penalty as self-induced abortion While article 123 of the 2018 legislation provided for self-induced abortion as an offence, its amendment also considers consent to abortion (performed by another) a crime, attracting the same penalty. It stipulates that a person who self-induces an abortion or who, contrary to the law, consents to abortion, commits an offence. Upon conviction, he or she is liable to imprisonment for a term of not less than one year but not more than three years and a fine of not less than Rwf100,000 but not more than Rwf200,000. ALSO READ: Unintended pregnancies fall as abortion rates stagnate in 25 years Meanwhile, Article 125 of the 2018 penal code which talks about exemption from criminal liability for abortion, was not amended. As per the article, there is no criminal liability if abortion was performed due to reasons namely the pregnant person is a child; the person having abortion had become pregnant as a result of rape; the person having abortion had become pregnant after being subjected to a forced marriage; the person having abortion had become pregnant as a result of incest up to the second degree; and the pregnancy puts at risk the health of the pregnant person or of the foetus.