Besides issues of national security, corruption may soon be the second crime whose suspects would have their phones tapped during investigations.
The issue came up yesterday during the appearance of the State Minister for Constitutional and Legal Affairs, Evode Uwizeyimana, before the parliamentary standing committee for political affairs and gender where both parties continue dissecting the proposed amendment of the code of criminal procedure.
Under a law passed in August, 2013 on interception of communications, phone tapping is considered lawful only if it is done in the interest of national security. It also allows the monitoring of postal or any other related service or system.
However, only specific government security and intelligence organisations within the army, police and intelligence services are authorised to apply for a phone interception warrant.
“Interception of communications is considered lawful when it is done in the interest of public security and in accordance with this law,” article 3 of the law reads.
Article 50 of the law under revision is a complete overhaul of the provisions put in place by 2013 law which authorised the Prosecutor General and their deputy as the only two people legally allowed to sign the communication interception warrant.
But now the new proposal suggests that any other high ranking official of another state organ entrusted with prosecutorial powers by the Prosecutor General could also authorise phone tapping.
“If other avenues in investigations and prosecutions to obtain evidence to achieve truth on commission of crimes on national security, corruption, embezzlement of state property fail, state security organs as specified by the Constitution of the Republic of Rwanda may, under written authorisation issued by the Prosecutor General or by any other high ranking official of another state organ entrusted with prosecutorial powers by the Prosecutor General, listen, understand and record or audio documents, internet, discussions, telegram, postal cards, high tech communication and any other mode of communication,” it reads.
The president of the committe, MP Alfred Rwasa Kayiranga said that while he was aware that phone tapping was especially done under extreme circumstances, he understood why it was necessary in matters that concern national security. He, however, shared his concerns.
“We are talking of decentralising phone tapping, adding these other people who can actually authorise it but the risk is that we may end up not achieving the initial target. Secondly, there could be some human rights abuse issues because you are giving this power to authorise the warrant to many people. It becomes harder to control,” he said.
MP Eutalie Nyirabega wondered why there was need to add to the number of the people who were in charge of authorising tapping.
“Why are we decentralising this? Why are we changing this? We should leave this the way it was and let the Prosecutor General do what he was doing because this is something that is really personal,” she said.
Uwizeyimana was quick to step in to remind the MPs that the powers to authorise tapping could not be changed that easily since they were in the country’s constitution.
He explained that this was a delicate issue and that the government was being cautious because it involves human rights.
“We need to be clear. There are some ideas that came in, suggesting that since the Ombudsman is already investigating corruption related cases, why should he apply to some other authority if he is interested in a particular number being tapped. Let’s remember that Ombusdman’s duties, important as they are, are not above those of national security. If the head of National and Intelligence Security Service is required to apply for authorisation, so should anyone else because not everyone has that opportunity,” he explained.
What this particular article means is that Ombudsman will not be required to go through the Inspector General of Police to apply for authorisation as it was before.
In 2016, MPs proposed that the government should begin listening in on civil servants’ private, communications and deploy ‘moles’ in public offices in order to detect and curb corruption.
The frustrations were voiced following the 2014/15 Ombudsman Report that indicated that preliminary investigations had failed to come up with concrete evidence implicating corrupt public servants linked to several failed multimillion-dollar projects.
Uwizeyimana requested to retain Article 50, which he said would be revised to make it clearer.
“I don’t want this article to be abused, so if you have no objection, I am taking it back for revision and I will bring it here when it is clearer,” he said.
The minister returns to the commission today.