In a bid to plug a loophole which saw criminals easily get pardoned, a newly published organic law on the organisation, jurisdiction, and competence and functioning of the Mediation Committees (Abunzi), states that criminal cases will no longer be handled by the latter.
Explaining changes in the law recently, the Minister for Justice, Johnston Busingye, told journalists that the idea is to, among others, make sure that criminals are duly penalized and offenses averted.
The minister explained that after various consultations on the prosecutorial powers previously given to mediation committees, it became clear that mediation is not the correct judicial course of action when handling a criminal offence.
As such, he said, during review of the law, all clauses concerning criminal cases were removed.
Unlike before, the new law allows the use of translators for people who do not speak Kinyarwanda yet seek help from Abunzi.
Mediation Committees is a Rwandan home grown solution, where persons known within their communities for integrity – in traditional rwandan society – are given powers to intervene in the event of conflict.
According to Busingye, when the organic law on the mediation committee was amended last year, two important elements were introduced including giving more prosecutorial powers to the committees.
From 2004, such committees were allowed to handle minor cases but in 2015, government observed that Abunzi were more established, had gained experience and were “trusted more” by Rwandans and as such “we thought they could help Rwandans resolve criminal cases.
Busingye added: “But just a year after the law was promulgated, we realized that many problems cropped up as there was a loophole making it possible for criminals to get away. We went back to parliament and requested that these crimes be put back in the penal code.”
Another thing done in 2015 was, he said, putting the maximum value of a case that can be handled at Rwf5 million, as regards the jurisdiction of the mediation committees in civil matters.
The rationale at the time was that nearly 12 years after 2004, something valued at five million had changed considerably and, probably, what was previously valued at Rwf 3million was now at Rwf5million.
However, this too has now been changed and Mediation Committee at the Cell level shall have jurisdiction to determine any civil case where the value of the subject matter of litigation does not exceed Rwf 3 million.
The rationale, it is said, was to ease the work load of Abunzi as they need to only handle minor cases.
“This issue was also again reexamined and we considered that the work load for the mediation committees should not be so heavy and, indeed, we realized that Rwf5million is still so high a value and then Parliament decided that the maximum value of a case that can be handled be revised from Rwf5 million to Rwf3 million” Busingye explained.
The minister warned that the government intends to clamp down on crimes such as: deliberately burning forests; breach of trust; blackmail; fraudulently keeping another person’s recovered item; mistreating, injuring or killing domestic animals; and others.
“What Rwandans now need to know is that the law has changed. Whoever is involved in these crimes, thinking that he or she will be taken to mediation committees and be forgiven and the matter ends there is warned,” Busingye said.
Abunzi were reintroduced in 2004 as a hybrid form of justice combining traditional with modern methods of conflict resolution, the idea being motivated in part by the desire to reduce the backlog of court cases, decentralize justice and make it more affordable and accessible for citizens seeking to resolve conflict without the cost of going to court.
They serve on a volunteer and non remunerated basis. According to the Ministry of Justice, in 2014/2015, Abunzi committees received 40,111 cases country; among them 30,719 were civil and 9,392 criminal cases.
36,830 were mediated and closed by Abunzi, which represent 80.5 percent of total cases treated.