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Rwanda: End Lifetime Solitary Confinement

Move to Secure Transfers From International Tribunal Falls Short


The Rwandan government should honor its international obligations by enacting legislation to abolish life imprisonment in solitary confinement, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to the presidents of the Senate and Chamber of Deputies.

In December 2008, the Rwanda Parliament prohibited life in solitary confinement for genocide suspects transferred from the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) or extradited from other countries and found guilty by Rwandan courts. However, the penalty remains on the books for other persons tried and convicted of genocide-related crimes in Rwanda. In its letter, Human Rights Watch outlined its concerns about the December legislation and called on Parliament to bar such a punishment from Rwandan law.

"Prolonged solitary confinement is cruel and inhuman treatment," said Alison Des Forges, senior advisor to the Africa division at Human Rights Watch. "Parliament needs to ban this penalty across the board to comply with its international obligations and to show a genuine commitment to human rights."

The recent legislative move is part of Rwanda's effort to prosecute in Rwanda persons suspected of involvement in the country's 1994 genocide. Until now, its efforts to have suspects sent back to Rwanda for prosecution have been largely unsuccessful. The ICTR, located in Tanzania, denied transfer in five cases this year, and France denied extradition in three cases. Another case involving genocide suspects is on appeal in the United Kingdom.

"Rwanda's decision to eliminate solitary confinement only for suspects transferred from other jurisdictions, including those alleged to have played a leading role in the 1994 genocide, also gives Rwandans the impression that different rules apply to different people," said Des Forges. "All suspects tried and convicted in Rwanda should be treated equally and none should be subjected to this punishment."

Rwanda's criminal sentencing scheme came under scrutiny after Rwanda expressed its willingness to receive cases from the ICTR nearly two years ago. At that time, with its trial completion date of 2008 looming, the ICTR undertook to find other jurisdictions to hear remaining cases. Rwanda was among the potential candidates, except that the ICTR cannot transfer cases to a jurisdiction where the death penalty may be imposed.

Rwanda passed a March 2007 law precluding the death penalty for any suspects transferred from the ICTR to Rwandan courts. In July 2007, the legislature adopted legislation definitively abolishing the death penalty. However, the law replaced it with life imprisonment in solitary confinement in certain cases, a sentence that cannot be reviewed or commuted for a period of at least 20 years.

A constitutional challenge was mounted against the lifetime solitary confinement penalty, but the Rwandan Supreme Court found it constitutional in August 2008. The government has announced plans to issue instructions on how the punishment should be implemented, but has not done so.

The solitary confinement provision impeded the transfer of cases from the ICTR to Rwanda, despite assurances by Rwandan government officials that transfer suspects would not be subject to lifetime solitary confinement if convicted by Rwandan courts. The ICTR denied transfer of five suspects, with appeals by the prosecutor rejected on the same grounds in several of the cases. The ICTR also expressed concern over whether suspects would be able to secure witnesses to testify in their defense in order to ensure a fair trial.

Solitary confinement for prolonged periods of time violates the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, Article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and Article 5 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights. Rwanda ratified the African Charter in 1983 and acceded to the ICCPR in 1975 and to the Convention against Torture on December 15, 2008.

"The new law sends the wrong signal to both Rwandans and the international community," said Des Forges. "It suggests that the country is more concerned with securing the transfer of cases from the tribunal than with respecting human rights for all of its citizens."

Life imprisonment in solitary confinement can be imposed by Rwandan conventional courts and community-based gacaca courts. In May 2008, the Rwandan legislature transferred most of the remaining genocide cases to gacaca courts and requires the mandatory punishment of lifetime solitary confinement for cases in which a suspect is convicted and has not previously confessed or pled guilty.

"In providing justice for the genocide, Rwanda needs to abide by its international human rights obligations and to respect the dignity and rights of all persons," Des Forges said. "Life imprisonment in solitary confinement should be definitively abolished."

Human Rights Watch is one of the world's leading independent organizations dedicated to defending and protecting human rights. By focusing international attention where human rights are violated, we give voice to the oppressed and hold oppressors accountable for their crimes. Our rigorous, objective investigations and strategic, targeted advocacy build intense pressure for action and raise the cost of human rights abuse. For 30 years, Human Rights Watch has worked tenaciously to lay the legal and moral groundwork for deep-rooted change and has fought to bring greater justice and security to people around the world.