(New York) - The Rwandan government has made notable progress in reforming its judicial system since 2004, but fair trial is still not assured, said Human Rights Watch in a new report released today.
The 113-page report,“Law and Reality: Progress in Judicial Reform in Rwanda,” examines changes to the judicial system adopted over the past four years. The report documents reforms including the abolition of capital punishment, but identifies continuing areas of concern, including the susceptibility of judges to pressure from members of the executive branch and other powerful persons, and the failure to assure basic fair trial standards – including the presumption of innocence, the right to present witnesses in one’s own defense, and the right to protection from double jeopardy.
“Rwanda has made technical improvements in the delivery of justice, but the system still falls short in key areas,” said Alison Des Forges, senior advisor to the Africa division at Human Rights Watch. “We identified serious problems in such areas as judicial independence, the right to present a defense, and the right to equal access to justice for all. It’s still the case that defendants in Rwanda may be denied their right to a fair trial.”
The report is being published as the Appeals Chamber of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) is examining decisions by the lower court refusing to transfer cases from the tribunal to Rwandan national courts. The ICTR was established by the United Nations to try crimes of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity committed in Rwanda in 1994. As the tribunal nears the end of its mandate, the prosecutor has sought to transfer some of the remaining cases to national courts, including in Rwanda.
Judicial systems in other countries such as France and the United Kingdom are also considering whether to send persons accused of genocide back to Rwanda for trial. Judicial decisions at the ICTR and in other national courts hang in part on evaluating whether fair trials can be guaranteed in Rwandan courts. Although courts in France and the UK decided in favor of extradition to Rwanda, the French decision was reversed on appeal. The UK decision will be appealed but has yet to be considered at the appellate level.
Based on two years of research for the report, Human Rights Watch has taken the position that, at this time, the independence of the courts and the assurance of fair trial rights in Rwanda are insufficient to permit extradition or transfer.
“It is extremely important that those implicated in serious crimes such as genocide be tried,” said Des Forges. “But they should be tried in legal systems that can guarantee independent and fair trials, and appropriate punishments.”
Concerns about judicial independence raised by the report took on new relevance in July 2008 when the Rwandan National Assembly approved a constitutional amendment establishing review of judicial mandates every four years. Previously, Rwandan law guaranteed judges other than those on the Supreme Court tenure for life, except in cases of misconduct. The amendment, likely to further limit judicial independence, was one of 50 adopted by the assembly.
Another constitutional amendment adopted by the assembly makes it possible to prosecute Rwandan presidents for crimes committed during their time in office only while they are actually in power. They are guaranteed immunity from prosecution for these crimes once their terms have finished. This amendment contravenes Rwandan law and Rwandan adherence to international conventions guaranteeing that liability for certain serious crimes, such as war crimes and crimes against humanity, may not be limited or revoked.
The Senate has not yet acted on the amendments voted by the assembly, but is expected to approve them. Approval by a majority vote of three-quarters of both legislative bodies is necessary for an amendment to be adopted
Among judicial improvements in Rwanda in recent years, Human Rights Watch singled out as most important the abolition of the death penalty. This improvement was counterbalanced, however, by establishing life imprisonment in solitary confinement as the maximum criminal penalty. This penalty constitutes cruel and inhuman treatment in violation of international conventions.
The guarantee of the right to counsel at all stages of judicial proceedings and the prohibition against arbitrary and prolonged detention are also noteworthy improvements in the protection of human rights. Other advances include higher educational criteria for candidates for judicial posts and greater efficiency in deciding cases.
Human Rights Watch also called for further efforts in eliminating torture and in providing humane conditions of detention.
Human Rights Watch emphasized the need for all citizens to be able to bring their claims before the courts, including those who suffered at the hands of the Rwandan Patriotic Army, the military force that defeated the government responsible for the genocide. Last month, Rwanda charged four of these military officers with having killed 15 civilians in June 1994.
“The trial of military officers for killing civilians could mark an important step on the road to real justice in Rwanda if it’s seen to be fair and if the punishment of any person convicted fits the crime,” said Des Forges. “We look to Rwandan judicial authorities to make this the beginning of a new effort to assure that all citizens have equal access to justice.”