Rwanda: Case backlog, detention and prison overcrowding keep dogging the judiciary


Arresting, case trial, executing court’s decision and serving the jail sentence remain a long process of justice. This process presents a heavy burden of challenges to the judiciary sector. Too many cases in court, prolonged detention, prison overcrowding… All these raise a concern on whether the justice every suspect or convict deserves is found behind bars. There are plenty of other ways that would be applied to offer appropriate and timely justice. However, there is still a long way to go.

Renowned Rwandan music producer Abed Mutimura was arrested in May 2023 over flying a video shooting drone in Kigali without permission. He was tried and sentenced to two years in jail with one year of a suspended penalty and a fine of Rwf5 million. He was then jailed. After his appeal, Nyarugenge Intermediate Court handed to him a one-year suspended term and a Rwf2 million fine. During his case period, some people bearing in mind that his act is punishable by the law – though the culprit said he had been doing same acts for a good time without knowing that it’s against the law – kept wondering whether it was the right justice detaining the suspect who recognised his transgression and asked for a pardon, is well-known for his job and workplace, and did not demonstrate any bad intention of his acts. Wasn’t it possible for the judge in the first place to do as the Intermediate Court by handing him a suspended penalty and a fine without sending him to an overcrowding prison?

This is a question that reverberates about the volume of cases that are tried in the same way whereas they carry different weights, and a huge number of convicts being sent to prison where they find an overcrowding number who are serving their sentences; however, some of them committed crimes that could attract penalties, other than a prison term, to remain out there in their communities offering their contribution instead of becoming a burden on the nation.

Theft, intentional assault and battery dominate crimes

At the launch of the judicial year 2023-2024, General Prosecutor Aimable Havugiyaremye revealed that crimes of theft, intentional assault and battery keep increasing as these two crimes represent over 50% of all crimes, and they amount to 59.3% of all committed crimes in general. The youth dominate in these crimes. The assessment by the prosecution revealed that there is a relation between these two crimes and drunkenness.

“Most of the young people, who are tried for committing theft, are driven by the desire to get money for beer and narcotic drugs. After getting drunk, they often get involved in dispute and fight, which result in intentional assault and battery crimes,” he said.

Roughly 72.8% of people involved in these crimes are aged below 30 years. A high number of the youth who commit these crimes is reflected in different categories. The latest statistics from Rwanda Correctional Services (RCS) indicate 89,034 persons are jailed in 13 prisons around the country, up from 85,000 in 2022. However, these figures are not including people in transit and rehabilitation centres such as IWAWA, detention centres and police cells. Among those in prison, 7% are female while all others are the male. Among all, 75.6% are serving a sentence of 30 years or less, 3.6% have a sentence longer than 30 years as 9.9% are serving a life imprisonment.

RCS figures don’t go far from the prosecution’s on the number of the youth getting involved in crimes because reports indicate at least 57% in jail are below 40 years old. In 2022, 26.2% were in jail over crimes related to the Genocide against the Tutsi, 17.2% jailed for theft, 11.2% for assault and battery and 11.4% for drug related crimes. At least 80% of people who are in prison have not attended secondary school.

Rwanda National Police reported in April 2023 having arrested 800 suspects of theft crimes in the previous two months, that is February and March. The arrests followed reports by some citizens who complained of being attacked and stolen by mobsters. The former police spokesperson CP John Bosco Kabera accused the youth of leading in those acts.

“There are young people who don’t do any work; they spend a day lying idle; they include those who never attended school, the school dropouts and those who migrated to cities after completing their studies. […] those young men spend their day standing on roads watching over people going to work and attack them to steal their belongings in the evening,” he said.

Kabera said 19% of arrests targeted persons under 18 years of age, 61% were aged between 19 and 30 years whereas 20% were above 30 years. At least 10% of the arrests booked persons who had been discharged from transit centres of Nyamagabe and IWAWA (one of three rehabilitation centers of the National Rehabilitation Service) which had discharged 4,000 persons in the previous two months. Those are the people in which the government invests a lot of efforts teaching them to abandon theft and drug abuse, and offering them professional skills but some of them return to those criminal acts after getting out of the centres.

Some of them acquire these theft manners in prisons; crimes such as deception through ICTs in which persons in prisons make phone calls to people out there and steal them money; whereas others, instead of acquiring important professional skills, they spend all their time learning techniques of stealing and other illegal acts from their peers they found in prison, and then get out with a higher capacity of carrying out illegal acts.

Illiteracy, unemployment, poverty

The fact that some of the convicts haven’t attended at least secondary school, that puts this category in high risk of committing crimes. Mr. Christophe Mugabe, a sociology expert, says “the reason some young people haven’t been able to do secondary education is a problem that takes roots in poor means of their families, the leading cause being poverty. However, in some instances, it is caused by lack of manners among children but I would say their number is smaller than those who become victims of poverty and family conflicts… Those ones, therefore, when they can’t figure out their future, they indulge in illegal acts for survival while also endangering their own lives.”

The intention to find survival means pushes some of them in theft, drug abuse or other illegal acts in a bid to quickly enrich themselves.

Whereas going to jail feels sad for some families who remain worried over losing the family’s provider or one being upset about the sentence they are going to serve, there are others who find refuge in jail as an escape option from the problems they face in their life out there.

Glorimas Nderelimana, a resident of Kirehe District, was jailed for 10 years in Ntsinda prison for committing child defilement. He finished his sentence in 2022. He testifies about this saying “There are young people and some older persons who finished their jail terms of 3, 4 or 5 years and got released but were brought back to prison a few days later; when we asked them why they committed crimes again, they answered that life was too hard out there to even afford meals.” According to Glorimas, such people fail to make life outside the prison and decide to commit other crimes to earn a ticket to prison where they are sure that at least their basic needs will be catered for. A similar view was shared by the police spokesperson when he commented on theft cases that were on the rise early this year saying “Among them, there are persons who spent more than two years in jail but they have refused to be corrected.”

Sharing the humour mixed with his sorrow, Abed Mutimura, who was once jailed at Nyarugenge prison widely known as Mageragere, says “A new prisoner came to us during a prayer and said ‘I want to thank God for blessing me with 10 years of living here without paying house rent or food.’” It is therefore clear that jail is considered as a blessing and a right place to live for some people. In addition, there are others who decide to steal and go to jail for all the years they might be sentenced to, knowing that they will get out of jail and start a better life by using what they had stolen. Some of the people who were previously jailed share stories of those who steal money from banks or individuals and deny any wrongdoing in court which sentences them to some years in jail and start a new life after the jail term with the money they had robbed before.

A former prisoner who preferred anonymity says “Definitely people do it and share such stories in prison saying like ‘my life will be sweet soon after going out of this prison.’ Such people commit crimes with intention and a plan for everything including their jail term which sounds to them as a formality.”

A bigger number of people who indulge in crimes are jobless who are trying to earn a living from anything that comes their way. The latest figures from the National Institute of Statistics indicate that 17.2% equivalent to 790,000 people among Rwandans do not have jobs, reflecting a significant decrease from 24.3% in November 2022. Tough these statistics recorded in February 2023 indicate a 7.1% decrease of unemployment rate, it’s by 0.7% below the 16.5% rate recorded in February 2022.

The youth take up a bigger portion of unemployment rate which stands at 21.8% in the age of 16 to 24 years, 17.3% between 25 and 34 years whereas it stood at 15,7% among those aged between 35 and 54 years. Unemployment was lower with 13.1% and 9.7% among those aged 55 – 64 years and 65+ respectively.

These statistics are a clear indication that, as RCS reported over 80% prisoners are below 40 years old, the unemployment is too high among people aged between 16 and 34 years. It’s in this age bracket where a bigger number of thieves and drug users is found; and some of the educated ones, and equipped with skills which would otherwise help them earn a living, direct their skills in illegal acts such as theft that relies on ICTs.

Alternative jailing and correction ways

In an interview with (a local news website), John Mudakikwa, the Executive Director of Centre for Rule of Law Rwanda (CERULAR), said that despite the government’s centres aimed at reducing theft as a dominant crime, there is need for supporting measures to accompany those they discharge in the journey to their wellbeing.

“Taking them to those centres requires more than that in order to support them in implementing the skills they acquired. If you give them skills without a plan for districts to support trainees, they will go back into crimes and those initiatives will not last long. There is need to provide districts with means to support trainees after completing their courses,” he said.

In this regard, some people say all the work of supporting those who go to jail is pushed to the government yet everyone has a role to play. “The law does its job of removing a criminal from the community. If one is taken away, they should receive support that prepares them to come back with a changed behaviour. Let them receive professional courses and be taught about good manners. In addition to that, however, let communities also be prepared to receive those persons. But where do these young people from rehabilitation centers go after? They arrive in their respective districts with their professional skills but they do not find there anyone to welcome them. Neighbours keep perceiving them in that image they had before being taken away. If there is no follow up on that person, they end up going back to bad practices, and therefore all the spending on them goes for waste,’’ one commented.

Apart from those transit centres, the court case workload increases, and that means the number of detainees and prisoners increases as well.

The president of Rwanda Bar Association, Moise Nkundabarashi, says the detention of suspects during the trial period while their number is too huge poses a big problem which needs being addressed because they can be tried when they are free and justice will still be rendered appropriately. “Principles governing criminal procedures stipulate that a suspect should be free during the trial as a principle, but it’s been observed that the exception is prevailing over the principle; we need to rectify this. […] It is possible that we try people without detaining them and justice will be rendered,” he says.

Nkundabarashi shared these concerns during the launch of the judicial year 2023-2024.

A former school administrator in Ruhango District, in southern province who preferred anonymity was charged, in 2019, with embezzlement funds together with his co-workers. After three weeks of detention in the investigation and prosecution cells, the court ruled that there were no grounds for detaining them, and were bailed and tried while they were free, and kept reporting to the prosecution once a month. Six months later, the court hearings took place in Muhanga Intermediate Court. They were convicted with two crimes out of four charges. They appealed to Nyanza High Court which cleared them of the two charges in 2022. The entire justice procedure took place when the suspects were roaming free as they turned up whenever it was required but they did not evade justice. This is one of the examples showing that trial without detention is possible if the judge wants to and won’t affect the justice.

“Imagine what would our life have been in three years if he had been detained during his trial,” commented her wife. “Even if he had been suspended from work, he kept searching around and earned a living for the family because he remained with us.”

A bigger number of suspects do not receive this chance; they undergo trial while they are in detention, and when they are cleared of the charges, they find their affairs, families and everything else in bad conditions but they can’t file for compensation because they get out of prison breathing a sigh of relief for being alive, and conclude that everything else will be earned slowly.

Nkundabarashi says judges are currently challenged by a heavy workload, citing an example of 37,000 cases they tried in 2005 but the number drastically increased to 91,381 cases in 2022/2023. Every judge is expected to try 49 cases per month, that is more than 2 cases a day because they usually work 20 days a month.

According to Jean Baptiste Karegeya, a journalist and analyst, the problem starts at the grassroots. The night patrol (Irondo), police, local leaders…all catch and put in cells everyone they find with misconduct, but they all avoid deciding on who should go to the prosecution and who deserves to be discharged because they fear being charged with bribery; they send all to prosecution. The judge, who doesn’t have enough time to collect evidence, will rule for 30 days of detention, and when they find evidence, they convict the person. Karegeya says that a heavy case workload leads to prison overcrowding and injustice in some cases, i.e quantity kills quality of justice.

Speaking at the Isango Star Radio talk show ‘’Urubuga rw’Itangazamakuru (Media Panel)’’ in June last year, the Executive Secretary of an Umbrella of Human Rights Organisations (CLADHO), Dr. Emmanuel Safari, reiterated that one of the causes of an increase in prison overcrowding is the detention of almost every suspect even if one was charged with petty offence. “It’ s become common to send to prison someone who commits petty offences. That’s not the only place for correction, the community does correct too,” he said.

The Government of Rwanda has embarked on a couple of measures in a bid to reduce cases piling up in courts.

Anastase Nabahire, the Director General for Justice Sector Coordination at the Ministry of Justice, says new articles have been introduced into Rwandan laws aiming at avoiding prison for suspects and convicts by using other ways such as fitting a convict with a tracking electronic tag, community service in lieu of incarceration, and bail bond, among others. For instance, the Ministry of Justice is working on a Community Service Bill which will allow some convicts to do works of the public interest instead of being incarcerated to serve their sentence.

Amendments that have been made in different laws including Penal Code and the law relating to the criminal procedure include articles providing for community service instead of imprisonment to people who commit petty offences such as failure to pay the bar or restaurant’s bills, theft of domestic animals and crops, among others.

About these measures to reduce cases that send people to jail, the General Prosecutor Aimable Havugiyaremye, says the prosecution has committed to reducing cases going to courts as they enhance other legal ways of settling disputes. Among them include plea bargaining in which a criminal accused negotiates with the prosecution before investigations or court hearing. Through this negotiated agreement, the accused agrees to plead guilty and it happens under the good will of the accused and prosecution. There is also mediation and charging fines. With these ways, the prosecution aims to resolve 50% of the received cases without sending them to courts.

“We have hit this target because 51% of cases were resolved at the prosecution level before filing for courts,” Havugiyaremye said.

The prosecution also targeted to reduce a number of detentions to see 60% of the accused undergoing their court trial when they are not detained.

“We reached 48% pursuing this target. That means we released 48% of all detainees so that they can be tried when they are not in jail,” he said.

The General Prosecutor says some crimes are on the increase to the extent there is need for concerted efforts by different organs to tackle them.

Despite the judiciary’s efforts and the prosecution’s measures in place, it is also important for Rwandan society to understand that a trial without detention doesn’t hinder justice from being rendered appropriately. There are cases where the general public blame judiciary entities for weakness when they see the accused in the community during justice procedures. Some of them go far to accuse entities of bribery or not taking seriously cases they received. In the society that witnessed the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi and its effects, the war, all in addition to other heavy problems including unemployment, poverty… it is crucial for citizens to understand that jailing is not always the right solution; there is, instead, other ways of pursuing justice when the accused or convict is not incarcerated. However, there is still a long way to go to attain an off-jail sanctioning culture despite the judiciary measures towards changing the mindset.

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