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Rwanda: Court of Appeal President Outlines Challenges in Criminal Justice

A new criminal policy that is being reviewed by the Cabinet will usher in changes that will turn around how judges make their final decisions and contribute to the much-needed alternatives to prison sentences, justice stakeholders were told last week.

This was revealed by the President of the Court of Appeal, Dr Aimé Karimunda, at a consultative forum held to assess the impact of the “Protecting Human Rights within Rwanda’s Criminal Justice System” project on Thursday.

This is going to be Rwanda’s first criminal justice policy. It is a collection of all policies guiding anything related to criminal justice. It will for instance contain guidelines on plea bargaining, mediation and any other criminal procedures that may not be in the current book of procedures.

It will come with new things that were not provided for by the law but also it will provide clear guidance that will help speed up processes and also help those in the justice sector to work more efficiently.

The Court of Appeal President said that although requests had been made to the Supreme Court to for instance revise the mandatory penalties back in 2017 to enable judges to deliver on their duties better, the law was gazetted in 2018 without reflecting the changes.

Karimunda said that at the time, the Supreme Court stated that the fact that the law was formulated in such a way that there is no flexibility is an impediment to the constitution because it denies the judges their independence at the time of passing judgement.

“That is the status of the criminal policy today. There is another one that is being anticipated and is awaiting approval by the government. After that, we are very optimistic that the laws will be revised to match the criminal policy in place,” he said.

Karimunda, however, called for more training for judges and prosecutors to fully take advantage of the anticipated criminal policy.

“Another issue we have is the way people in positions to deliver justice operate. The question is if the laws are revised, are the prosecutors and judges going to use it the right way? There is a need for more training for them to really understand how to use these laws,” he said.

Lack of legal aid

Karimunda touched on the issue of lack of sufficient legal aid, saying that there are many cases that would cut on time and money if expert witnesses were produced in court.

He said that although there is legal aid at the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court, many lawyers there are still yet to get to a satisfactory level of sufficiently defending their clients.

He decried the lack of sufficient legal aid at Primary, Intermediate and even in high court, saying that it was worrying since these courts normally deliver final judgements.

“You have people coming from their farms who have no clue about the law who have to deal with prosecutors who have 30 years’ experience,” he said.

Plea bargaining

He touched on the issue of plea bargaining, which he said is being pushed for by many. He said that plea bargaining is not new adding that it had been introduced but was not embraced because most people did not understand it.

He said that many people spend more time in detention than necessary as a result of weaknesses in the law, institutional and individual weaknesses.

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