Activists weigh in on proposed Penal Code

Members of the parliamentary Standing Committee on Political Affairs and Gender will, starting Thursday, begin scrutinising a draft law that seeks to amend the Penal Code.

Members of the parliamentary Standing Committee on Political Affairs and Gender will, starting Thursday, begin scrutinising a draft law that seeks to amend the Penal Code.

Parliament approved the basis of the proposed law last month, paving way for its deep examination by the House before its enactment into law.

Apart from removing some offences and penalties from the Organic Law of 2012 instituting the Penal Code and inserting them in special laws, the proposed Penal Code also includes adjustments on issues such as abortion, adultery, prostitution, as well as corruption and embezzlement.

Abortion and other laws

The draft law seeks to do away with the mandatory court order before procuring an abortion when it’s legally accepted in specific cases of rape, forced marriage, incest, or when it could be injurious to the health of the baby or the mother.

On prostitution, the amendment seeks to criminalise those who lure young people, especially girls, into the activity, a move officials say aims to protect the country’s youth from pimps.

On adultery, the Government proposes that a spouse’s forgiveness toward their unfaithful partner will not automatically bring prosecution to a halt since court will be given a prerogative to accept or reject the forgiveness.

The proposed amendment to the Penal Code also seeks to include embezzlement among forms of corruption.

The Bill also seeks to introduce heavy punishments for emerging and sophisticated crimes such as human trafficking, offences against children, terrorism, and those related to cyber security.

Heated debate ahead?

The scrutiny of the draft Penal Code is likely to attract strong arguments as legislators, public officials, members of the civil society, and other policy-makers seek common ground on some of the contentious issues in the Bill.

On abortion, it’s still not yet clear whether removing a court requirement won’t open up gaps for possible abuse of the law as some people might think that abortion is now acceptable even if it will remain illegal.

The chairperson of Rwanda Civil Society Platform (RCSP), Jean Leonard Sekanyange, told The New Times that removing the court order might loosen current measure against illegal practice of abortion.

“The court requirement should stay in order to maximise protection mechanisms for human life,” he said.

But Sekanyange backs the proposal on adultery, explaining that it will strengthen family protection.

“It’s good that punishing adultery is going to be tougher. It will protect families,” he said.

Alice Uwimbabazi, who heads a capacity building project for women leaders at Pro-Femmes Twese Hamwe, an umbrella organisation for women NGOs in Rwanda, says the Government should maintain in the Penal Code framework to punish married men who cohabit with other women and clearly spell it in the law as a separate crime from adultery.

While tabling the Penal Code Bill in Parliament last month, the State Minister for Constitutional and Legal Affairs, Evode Uwizeyimana, told MPs that cohabitation would be repealed and simply treated as adultery.

Uwimbabazi is concerned that this might make the crime go unpunished because cohabitation is different from simple adultery and penalties for it should be harsher.

“Adultery should be punished separately from cohabitation because they are different. Cohabitation is worse than adultery and punishments for it should be tougher,” she said.

“The challenge is that if you remove cohabitation among the specific crimes in the Penal Code, it will create a gap that will make it possible for married people to go ahead and cohabit.”

While the current Penal Code provides that if someone is convicted of committing adultery the penalty for it is six months to one year in prison, cohabitation attracts two to four years in prison.

On prostitution, Dr Aflodis Kagaba, the executive director at Health Development Initiative, a local NGO that advocates for social development and wellbeing, has welcomed the Government’s move to decriminalise it.

While in its current form, Penal Code provides that you commit a crime if you carry out prostitution without fulfilling conditions laid out in Article 205, the proposed code is silent on the topic and hence doesn’t list it among crimes and penalties specified in the law.

Kagaba described the proposed Penal Code as “progressive” on prostitution matters since it now remains silent, which means that it doesn’t make the vice a criminal offence any more.

“It is silent on prostitution, which we really wanted. It is the best and it would be great if Parliament endorsed it,” he told The New Times yesterday.

The social development activist argues that using the law to prevent prostitution is not effective since it victimises people involved in the practice because they can’t report violence inflicted to them during the process as they feel that they are involved in criminal activities.

“They (prostitutes) are already discriminated against and victimised by society. If you criminalise prostitution under the law you make them more vulnerable,” he said.

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.