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Opponents of Solitary Confinement Urge Rwandan Lawmakers to Overturn Prisoner Legislation

Rights activists are urging the government of Rwanda to end its practice of isolating prisoners convicted in Rwanda by holding them in solitary confinement for a minimum of 20 years.The group Human Rights Watch says it has reminded the Rwandan government about legislation enacted by parliament in December that prohibits solitary confinement for genocide suspects transferred from the international criminal tribunal or extradited from other foreign countries.However, Human Rights Watch says those convicted in Rwandan courts often face a different standard that amounts to torture under international law. Human Rights Watch senior Africa advisor Alison Des Forges says that because the legislation is selective, efforts by outsiders to have suspects sent back to Rwanda for prosecution from other places have been unsuccessful.

“The law itself makes a discrimination, makes a choice, and says people who are returned to Rwanda if they were arrested abroad, or who are sent back to Rwanda by the International Tribunal will not suffer this penalty.But other Rwandans captured or arrested inside Rwanda are subject to it if they have committed certain crimes. So here you have a case of a very severe punishment being possibly applied to one part of the citizens, and not to others,” she explained.

In 2007, Rwanda adopted legislation abolishing the death penalty.Although this conformed to international laws observed by others, including the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), located in Arusha, Tanzania, genocide suspects and Rwandans found guilty outside the country still have not been returned to Rwanda for prosecution.The International Court has denied transfer in five cases during the past year, and France recently denied extradition in three cases.Another Rwanda genocide case in the United Kingdom is currently on appeal. Des Forges says that although Rwanda has voiced a willingness to receive cases from the ICTR and help other jurisdictions hear remaining cases, foreign judges remain reluctant to send the prisoners back.

“Generally, the judicial systems abroad have been concerned, particularly about whether or not someone will be able to present a full defense, have access to a full range of defense witnesses in order to demonstrate his innocence of the charges.It may well be that in the minds of some (foreign) judges that this solitary confinement provision may also play a part,” she noted.

In its letter to Rwandan legislators, Human Rights Watch points out that suspects tried and convicted in Rwanda should be treated equally and should not be subjected to this punishment.It urges passage of new legislation that spells out the prohibition for Rwandan prisoners.Alison Des Forges indicates that those being harmed by the current dual legal arrangement go far beyond the prisoners themselves.

“The people who are subject to the punishment are the ones who suffer the most grievously from it, but Rwanda itself also suffers in the international arena because it has made certain promises under international law about how it will treat its own citizens and it’s not keeping its own promises,” she said.

Last year, a constitutional challenge pressed to lift the lifetime solitary confinement punishment, but in August, Rwanda’s Supreme Court said the law was constitutional.Under international law, 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 (ACHPR).