On July 25, 2007 the government of Rwanda abolished capital punishment. This carefully considered decision sent different messages throughout society. Some citizens were heartened; others quite distressed. However, in several ways the decision will permit the justice system to function more effectively in bringing the many thousands still charged with genocide and crimes against humanity to answer for their actions. Those already convicted and sentenced to die will while out their days in jail.
Lack of accountability for crimes of ethnic hatred was among the contributing factors to the 1994 genocide. Perpetrators of sporadic pogroms aimed at the Tutsi since 1960 had never been held accountable. This impunity led planners of the 1994 event to believe that they too could escape punishment for the ethnic slaughter they unleashed. However, despite the murder of nearly a million people, the perpetrators did not escape. Many were apprehended and held for trial.
Ending impunity and trying over 100,000 persons for genocide crimes was and remains a complicated task. Trials began in 1997 and the first convictions occurred in that year when execution was the law of the land.
In my book In the Aftermath of Genocide: the U.S. Role in Rwanda I write about the executions that occurred on April 25, 1998. Twenty-two persons died that day, four in Kigali.
“In Kigali the four convicted – Froudouard Karamira, Silas Munyagishari, Elie Nshimiyimana, and Virginie Mukankusi – were brought by truck to a field outside the Nyamirambo stadium. About twenty thousand persons somberly watched as the genocidaires were lined up, tied to stakes, and black hoods slid over their heads. There was no ceremony. A team of soldiers shot them at close range with automatic rifles. Another soldier administered a pistol coup de grace to each head. It was quickly finished. The bodies were carted away in the same truck that brought them. The crowd dispersed.
“The government had made its point. Impunity was at an end…. Having made the point the government carried out no further executions in 1998. This restraint began to pose a problem. I did not think the government wanted to execute the hundreds or possibly thousands of prisoners who would be given capital punishment. That would be a lot of vengeance for one government to administer. Suppose then that only the worst offenders were chosen for execution – but how to choose? They would all be convicted under the same law, and all equally guilty. Rwanda’s solution to this conundrum seems to be patience. Those sentenced to die remain in prison awaiting the carrying out of their punishment.”
Since those first executions, no further were done. About a thousand persons have been sitting on death row since 1998 with more added each year. Annulling the death penalty will now commute death sentences to life imprisonment. This relieves the government of the problem of potentially having to execute a thousand prisoners. Of course, it avoids the international outcry that would have resulted if a program of such executions were begun. Presumably the prisoners and their families welcome the change. Opponents of the death penalty are also pleased as are Rwandans who believe that national reconciliation can best be accomplished without further shedding of blood. Yet many survivors are disappointed and dismayed, even feeling betrayed. They had long awaited a final rendition of justice for those who murdered family and friends. They seek a sense of closure they will never have.
On the wider perspective of justice, absence of the death penalty opens the door for the extradition of genocidaires identified and even arrested in Europe, Canada and in other non-capital punishment nations. Heretofore such nations refused to extradite accused to Rwanda on account of the possibility of capital punishment. Now, they will be expected to comply with proper extradition requests. Similarly with the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda that sits is Arusha, Tanzania. One impediment to close cooperation between the ICTR and Rwandan judicial officials was the existence of the death penalty. With the annulment cooperation should improve. Over the longer term as the ICTR winds up operations in coming years, cases can be transferred to Rwanda for adjudication and convicts for incarceration.
In summary, given the circumstances abolishing the death penalty was the right thing to do. Domestically, Rwandans know that impunity is finished and that justice is being meted out. Genocidaires are answering for their crimes. Life in an African prison is no bed of roses. Internationally, Rwanda is doing the right thing that enhances its reputation and its ability to apprehend more of the “big fish” genocidaires.