Harmful benevolence in Rwanda's judicial system

The ideology of genocide and justice cannot go hand in hand. You cannot embrace both at once. As such, one of the sectors of the state that suffered serious decay and decimation before and during the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi was the justice sector.

The ideology of genocide and justice cannot go hand in hand. You cannot embrace both at once. As such, one of the sectors of the state that suffered serious decay and decimation before and during the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi was the justice sector. Thus, a key challenge for post-Genocide leadership was to build – from scratch – a credible justice system that was at once accountable to Rwandans. For all its shortcomings, a reasonable person would agree that the reforms of the past decade and a half have moved the sector in this direction. Indeed, much more could have been achieved; however, external interference and double standards – despite claims to the contrary – have seriously caused damage to justice delivery.

In civilised society, it is the norm to respect judicial processes. Moreover, when there is doubt in the way judicial processes are being handled, tradition dictates that benefit of doubt should be extended to the judicial system. This is the basic guiding principle for civilised engagement in judicial matters; any attempt to do otherwise must be treated with the contempt it deserves.

Only wilful ignorance explains why those who claim sanctity of the rule of law insist in undermining the very judicial system that is supposed to deliver it. And there is a lot of wilful ignorance when it comes to Rwanda: universal principles of good faith are tossed out of the window by the same people who claim to belong to superior civilisations.

I’m talking members of the international media, human rights organisations, and diplomats accredited to Rwanda. These conduct themselves as if they have a supervisory mandate on the justice system when in fact they are infringing on justice delivery. Even if it’s an open court hearing, their attendance infers some unstated supervisory role and a scene of serious diplomatic preoccupation.

They do things they would never dream of doing in their own countries. Everything gets turned upside down – standards and norms change. The first thing they do is to withdraw the benefit of doubt that good faith demands and conduct in a manner that suggests that Rwanda’s very justice system is on trial.

Rwanda on trial becomes their starting point. Rarely do they consider the substance of the matter under investigation. And when the suspect has some connection to politics, then the gloves come off: a judicial matter quickly becomes political even where there is ample evidence to the contrary. It’s an obsession.

Consider this. They see no contradiction that in their own countries a person who enters politics accepts to open him or herself up to public scrutiny and how such a decision raises the bar of personal integrity.

If they didn’t hold us in contempt they wouldn’t insist that the bar must be lowered for those who seek to lead us or that they should be placed above the law. Wittingly or unwittingly, their actions suggest this.

Think of a scenario where President Kagame summons a European or American diplomat and asks him or her to interfere in a judicial matter in their home country. Even if it were a matter as serious as genocide, the diplomat would think Kagame is mad.

Or think of one of our ambassadors abroad. She enters the premises of the Attorney General of a European country, or in Washington DC, and starts to question a court decision in that country. She would be on the next plane to Kigali.

Western diplomats believe they can casually walk into any office in Rwanda to make the kinds of demands that would be scandalous were they to be made in their home countries. Here they not only walk in, they even have the temerity to go on twitter to demand explanations from decision makers.

Duplicity and arrogance

They are prepared to go up in arms even when they haven’t a clue about the substance of the case. I spoke to a senior lawyer for insights on this behaviour. He assured me that one anecdote would be all I needed. It was a story involving the case of Peter Erlinder, the American lawyer for IngabireUmuhoza.

“I was invited to the U.S.,” he recalled. “I was having a discussion on, among other things, that case. Prominent professors of law across America, in the hundreds, had signed a petition to protest Erlinder’s arrest.” They did this even before the charges against her had been made public.

“We have yet to release the contents of the investigations to the public,” he told them. “So, I asked the audience a simple question:‘On what basis had these Professors petitioned?’”

It was clear that, he remembers thinking to himself, the Professors had petitioned against a case whose substance they knew nothing about, “So, I asked whether in their haste to petition they hadn’t exposed a lack of respect for basic judicial standards.”

It was evident to anyone that the only basis for the petition was that “one of their own” had been arrested in a remote country where no competent organs of law enforcement are expected to exist or to function.

Harmful benevolence

Theirs is harmful benevolence. It distorts the justice system and leaves behind a situation where officers of the court who are primarily supposed to be accountable to it, with a duty to protect its integrity, are faced with extensive external pressure. Consequently, some fall prey to these pressures and begin to comport themselves as if they are primarily accountable to these external actors.

And who has not seen suspects reveal to international journalists and diplomats matters under investigation in the expectation that these actors constitute an appellate court for Rwanda’s jurisdiction?

If they wish to replace our judiciary they should say so.

Follow: @LonzenRugira

The views express in this article are of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Times.

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