2018 will go down as the year in which Rwanda witnessed major legal reforms

Mutangana (L) briefs a parliamentary committee about drug dealing. On right is State Minister for Legal and Constitutional Affairs Evode Uwizeyimana. File.

The year 2018 has come to an end and it will arguably go down as the year of milestones in terms of law reforms. Most significant among the reforms was the Penal Code.

The journey to amend the Penal Code kicked off towards the end of 2017 with lawmakers at the time approving the basis of a government bill that was seeking to amend the Penal Code, paving way for the examination of the draft legislation by the House and its eventual enactment into law.

The government, through the Rwanda Law Reform Commission, embarked on reviewing the penal law in 2015 as part of efforts to keep the country’s laws up-to-date.

The State Minister for Constitutional and Legal Affairs, Evode Uwizeyimana, tabled the bill before the Lower House, explaining that the changes aimed at making the Penal Code easier to use and more effective in deterring crime, punishing convicts, and rehabilitating offenders.

Uwizeyimana said the new stamp of approval was a great way for the previous parliament to leave their mark, saying that it will also make the penal code more user-friendly.

“The Penal Code contained offences and penalties for genocide, and rape among other topics and it just wasn’t smart putting all of the unrelated things together because as a result, using the Penal Code wasn’t easy.” he says.

 To achieve that goal, the Penal Code includes offences and penalties for general crimes while special crimes and offences were moved to special laws on the specific sectors.

Commenting on the new Penal Code, the Prosecutor General; Jean Bosco Mutangana, told The New Times that any reform that brings in new issues as far as solving problems concerning criminal law was a boost to criminal justice.

“We have specific laws that cover specific offenses like the laws covering corruption, genocide ideology, and protection of the child. However, the Penal Code covers many of the offenses and remains in place to ensure criminal law and accountability,” he said.


Specifically, Mutangana said that the law on corruption, which government made imprescriptible or not subject to being void due to lapse of time.  

“These reforms that have been taking place within the justice system ushered in another development in the promotion of criminal law, distinguishing general offenses from specific ones in terms of building capacity when it comes to offenses like corruption,” he said.

The crime of corruption was also reviewed to remove the ambiguity under the previous law where there were instances where offences would be called ‘corruption’ while others were called “offences related to corruption,” a situation that often caused unwarranted confusion in the crusade against corruption.

Embezzlement, bribery, self-enrichment and many others were merged to imply the same thing and now carry higher fines and punishments.


Another area of interest in the new penal code was the decriminalisation of defamation, a step that was hailed by the Rwanda Journalists Association as a very important step towards promoting freedom of the press and free expression in general.


Another area that attracted attention in the penal code was the scrapping of the requirement of a judge to approve an abortion.

An approval for abortion will be carried out on consultation between a woman and her doctor unlike the previous legal regime that compelled a decision by a judge before the procedure can be carried out.

However, the law still prescribes situations where abortion is legally permissible but it provides that the Minister of Health, by a ministerial order, indicates how or which criteria is okay and how everything will be done by a medical doctor.


The government also came down hard on drug lords instituting life in prison as the punishment for anyone found guilty of selling illicit drugs.

Upon conviction, he or she is liable to life imprisonment and a fine of more than Rwf20 million and not more than Rwf30 million in regard to hard drugs.

Previously, any person who unlawfully made, transformed, imported, or sold narcotics and psychotropic substances within the country, was liable to a term of imprisonment from three to five years and a fine of between Rwf500,000 and Rwf5 million.

The Chairperson of the Rwanda Civil Society Platform, Jean Léonard Sekanyange said in a telephone interview that that the move to clamp down on drugs would make drug dealers know the consequences.

“People had become fearless because the punishments were not deterrent enough. Most of them would be sentenced only for them to join the same business upon release. Tightening the punishment is obviously something that we are happy about,” he said.

Sekanyange, however, pointed out that there is still need for mass mobilisation, where sensitisation about drug use and its permanent consequences becomes part of the society’s daily lives.

Establishment of court of appeal

Also among other milestones this year was the establishment of the Court of Appeal whose duties include arbitration on appeal level, cases handled by the High Court, the Commercial High Court, and the Military High Court.

Prosecutor Mutangana told The New Times that the court, which falls within the framework of other East African jurisdictions with courts of appeals, was a great achievement towards the greater functioning of the judiciary.

“The court of appeal will allow the greater functioning of the judiciary and is here to deal with ensuring faster justice delivery. It’s a very big advantage because it is taking away all the appeals from the lower courts and in the process cut on the huge backlog which has been a challenge,” he said.

Establishment of economic crimes chambers at Intermediate Courts

Another milestone was the setting up of specialized chambers at the country’s twelve intermediate courts to try corruption and other economic crimes, a move seen by many as critical in the war against corruption.

Apart from trying corruption cases, the new special chambers will also try economic and financial crimes such as embezzlement, money laundering, and bounced checks, among others.

Since intermediate courts had only special chambers for juvenile, administrative, and labour chambers before the new law was enacted, it now means that corruption and economic crimes cases will also be treated as special and attract more attention from judges.