In July 2007, Rwanda became the first country in the Great Lakes region to abolish the death penalty, a move that was greeted with joy by the anti-capital punishment supporters across the world.
The decision was particularly significant given that it came barely three years after the Genocide against the Tutsi.
That time thousands of Genocide suspects crammed the country’s prisons, with thousands more still at large.
The country was just emerging from decades of widespread impunity, and there was a general feeling that tough laws should be enacted and strictly enforced to nurture a new society that upholds the rule of law.
Yet even as the death penalty still existed on the books, in practice capital punishment had not been implemented since 1998.
In fact, all convicts who had been condemned to death by the courts saw their sentences effectively commuted to life imprisonment upon the abolition of the death sentence.
While, it was and remains necessary that every man and woman who had a hand in the Genocide be brought to justice, it was equally important that the government restored a sense of respect for human life, in a country where state-sanctioned arbitrary killings had become the norm for decades.
Indeed, the government’s decision to scrap capital punishment was among the first in a series of reforms aimed at helping manage the legacy of the Genocide. Not only did we abolish the death penalty but we also did away with solitary confinement.
Our prisons have been revamped to meet international standards and indeed, the UN has a number of its prisoners from Sierra Leone serving their sentences in Rwanda.
And, far from subjecting Genocide convicts to the punishments almost commensurate with their inhuman crimes, the government introduced a law under which those who admitted guilt, expressed remorse and spoke the truth about the killings, had their sentences reduced.
Also, depending on the weight of the crimes committed, some convicts saw their entire or half of their jail terms converted into hard labour, an alternative sentence that allowed them reasonable freedom.
These are people who cut into pieces, burnt or even crucified their victims as recently as 1994!
The guiding principle in these reforms was the understanding that justice is best served in an environment that squarely upholds the very values the suspects/convicts are accused of going against.
An environment that respects the rights of every suspect/convict is likely to result in the rehabilitation of criminals. Alienating them could only radicalize them.
Indeed, these reforms represent the courage and restraint that characterized the majority of the Rwandan people after the Genocide.
Yet, untypical of Rwanda’s leadership, there’s indecisiveness when it comes to our 33-year old penal code.
The draft penal code, currently under review in the Senate, has many sticking issues.
Having followed some of the arguments in favour of heavy penalties for such offences as abortion, suicide attempt and defamation in parliament, I got the feeling that our MPs are likely to pass a piece of legislation that contradicts the spirit and broad principles that have guided our judicial system in the recent past.
The Minister of Justice, Tharcisse Karugarama, had to intervene to request the Senate to allow him withdraw that draft law to have it revised.
The truth is that the proposed length of prison terms would only portray Rwanda as a country more interested in extreme punishments than genuine deterrents.
Hadn’t it been for the minister, we would possibly have a penal code that is insensitive to the conditions that surround abortion or suicide.
I can’t imagine why our MPs had chosen to raise the maximum jail term for an abortion convict from 10 to 15 years! Or why they wanted someone who has survived suicide to be incarcerated for between two to three years for having attempted to take their life!
Or why they insist that convicts for libel/slander, including journalists, should spend years in prison, and fervently reject calls for decriminalization of defamation, especially for media practitioners!
These cases clearly put the intentions of our MPs into question.
I don’t support abortion, no do I see why I should force a teenager or a woman who has been gang-raped to give birth to babies they will never be able to raise, or love.
I understand they are under enormous pressure, especially from the Catholic Church and moralists, but our MPs must choose to do what is best for the people.
After all, we know that no legal restrictions will end abortion. Women will continue to abort, albeit at a much greater risk, when they’re denied a chance to freely seek the services of qualified medical doctors.
Our lawmakers need to wake up to the reality, and stop pretending to advocate for the supposed rights of the unborn, while thousands of women, continue to die in avoidable circumstances.
Even more inexplicable is the fact our MPs want anyone, with a mental disorder or simply frustrated with the challenges of life, who attempts to take their life but fails in the process, to languish in prison, as if that will take away the condition and motives behind their suicide attempts.
No, you cannot have one of your own back to life and then go on to add more misery on their impaired conscience, instead of giving them love and care!
MPs should understand they have a lot to do to keep the nation on a progressive path.