Rwanda Govt explains proposal to reduce life sentence

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If a 19-year-old teenage boy defiles a 17-year-old girl, he is liable to 20 or 25 years’ imprisonment, which increases to a life sentence in the case of cohabitation, the Minister of State in charge of Constitutional and Legal Affairs at the Ministry of Justice, Soline Nyirahabimana, has said.

She made the observations on July 6, during the session in which the Parliamentary Committee on Political Affairs and Gender started scrutinising a bill amending the 2018 penal code.

The Minister said the proposed reduction of life imprisonment to a minimum of a 15-year jail term in case of mitigating circumstances is meant to ensure criminal justice by dealing with offences in the context they were committed.

She indicated that there should be due diligence to ensure that people who have committed the same crime, but for different reasons or motives, do not always receive the same punishment. However, she noted that some offenders may still get life imprisonment if there are no mitigating circumstances.

Proposed amendments to Rwanda’s penal law include reducing life imprisonment to not less than 15 years in jail in case there are mitigating circumstances. (It was indicated in the explanatory note of the bill that life sentences could be reduced to not less than 10 years. But, Nyirahabimana clarified that the minimum is 15 years, pointing out that 10 years was an error).

According to the current law enacted in 2018, any person who commits child defilement – has sexual intercourse with a child – is liable to imprisonment for a term of not less than 20 years and not more than 25 years, upon conviction.

However, among other aggravating circumstances, if child defilement is followed by cohabitation as husband and wife, the penalty is life imprisonment that cannot be mitigated by any circumstances.

This applies to any person who has reached the age of consent – 18 years – or is above it.

MP Suzanne Mukayijore wondered whether the sentence given to a 19-year-old teenage boy who has defiled a girl aged 16 should not be lessened since the age gap between them is not significant.

State Minister Nyirahabimana said that if a person aged 19 has sexual intercourse with a 16 or 17-year-old, he has already committed child defilement, which makes him liable to 20 or 25 years of imprisonment.

Sometimes, Nyirahabimana added, they move on to cohabitate as wife and husband, as they try to hide from their parents who might be disapproving of their behaviour. In that case, she said, the teenage boy will face a life sentence.

Yet, she said, the current law is so strict that it does not allow any mitigating circumstances that would result in a light penalty for such a case.

“These are some of the cases we have,” she said.

She told lawmakers that with proposed amendments in the bill, a judge is being given flexibility to try such cases by factoring in the mitigating circumstances.

“We should look at both sides to give justice to the victims of crimes, punish offenders but correct them because what we want is that they get reintegrated into society when they are rehabilitated people who can serve themselves and the country,” she said.

“If a person is taken to jail, and gets effective correctional services, he/she will have improved within 10 or 15 years “if he/she is correctable,” she said.

The Inspector General of National Public Prosecution Authority (NPPA), Jules Marius Ntete, said because of lack of flexibility in the penal law – for both lawyers and prosecutors – there are cases where a prosecutor was forced to seek severe penalties such as life sentence “even when there are mitigating circumstances that were pushing him/her to seek a light punishment.”

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