Criminal Justice in Rwanda

Have you been made aware that a U.S. citizen was recently arrested in Rwanda?

Please ask the local authorities to notify the U.S. Embassy immediately. The Embassy can work to help protect the person and ensure fair treatment. The Embassy will visit the prisoner, provide information about the local legal process (including giving a list of local attorneys), and notify family and friends.

If you are concerned that the authorities may not notify the U.S. Embassy, or if you do not want to ask the authorities to contact us, you can contact us directly using our emergency contact information. Someone is available 24 hours at +250 252-596-400 for emergency situations involving American citizens. Please provide as much information as possible, so that we are able to assist your friend or family member.

Foreign Laws

While in a foreign country, a U.S. citizen is subject to that country’s laws and regulations which sometimes differ significantly from those in the United States and may not afford the protections available to the individual under U.S. law. Foreign laws and legal systems can be vastly different than our own and criminal penalties will vary from country to country. It is very important to know what is legal and what is illegal wherever you go.

While you are traveling in Rwanda, you are subject to its laws. Persons violating Rwandan laws, even unknowingly, may be expelled, arrested or imprisoned. Rwanda strictly enforces its laws about appropriate speech regarding the genocide. Penalties for possession, use, or trafficking in illegal drugs in Rwanda are severe, and convicted offenders can expect long jail sentences and heavy fines. In Rwanda, you may be taken in for questioning if you do not have your passport with you or if you take pictures of certain buildings. If you break local laws in Rwanda, your U.S. citizenship will not help you avoid arrest or prosecution. If arrested in Rwanda, a U.S. citizen must go through the Rwandan legal process including possible charge or indictment, prosecution, possible conviction and sentencing, and any appeals process.

The Consular Officer’s Role

To ensure that the United States Embassy is aware of your circumstances, request that the police and prison officials notify the U.S. Embassy as soon as you are arrested or detained. Rwandan authorities generally inform U.S. Embassy Kigali of the detention of American citizens without delay upon a citizen’s request.  The Consular Officer will visit the arrestee as soon as possible after notification.  On the initial visit, the Consular Officer will check on the well-being of the detainee and the circumstances of the arrest, provide a list of attorneys, and ask for a Privacy Act Waiver to provide authorization for the consular officer to be in contact with others, such as concerned family members, regarding the arrest.  If necessary, the Consular Officer will intercede with local authorities to ensure full observance of the citizen’s rights under Rwandan law.

If authorized by the U.S. citizen to do so, the Consular Officer will notify the arrested person’s family and relay requests for financial or other assistance.  Consular Officers in Kigali try to visit detained American citizens in pre-trial status once every three months.  For convicted prisoners, visits are scheduled every six to twelve months.

Read more about what happens to American Citizens arrested or detained abroad:

Rwanda-Specific Criminal Penalty Information

Rwanda has a legal system that combines civil law and common law. Although there are many similarities between the two systems—for example, prisoners are presumed innocent until proven guilty and they have rights to legal representation, an interpreter, a fair trial and an appeal—there are fundamental differences, the main one being the absence of the jury system and only the prosecution lawyers prepare an investigation, while defense lawyers do not. The Rwandan judicial system is heavily bureaucratized and cases can be delayed significantly.

If you are arrested or otherwise under detention, you should never sign anything you cannot read or understand.  It may be a confession and/or could include information which can worsen your situation.  If you are pressured to sign before having access to a lawyer, ask to speak to the Consular Section of the U.S. Embassy.  Article 36 of the Vienna Consular Convention of 1963 requires that host country officials inform prisoners of their right to communicate with their Consular Officer.  This agreement also guarantees the right of “timely access” to the prisoner by the Consular Officer.

What happens when I am arrested?

You can only be detained at a police station for the following reasons:

  • The alleged offense committed is punishable by a minimum of two years imprisonment;
  • There are reasonable grounds to suspect that you will try to escape;
  • Your identity is unknown or disputed.

The police officer will record and make four copies of the statement of the arrest, of which:

  • One is transmitted to the competent public prosecutor;
  • One is filed in the criminal case file;
  • One given to the officer in charge of the remand prison;
  • One is given to the accused.

You have the right to be informed of the exact charges against you and to a lawyer to assist you with your statement.  The statement can be made in English, French, or Kinyarwanda.  If you are not conversant in any of these three languages, you have the right to an interpreter.

You can be held in the police station for 72 hours.   After this, your case is transferred to the prosecutor’s office, which has an additional five days (Article 37 of the Penal Procedure Code) to present your case to a judge, who will decide whether to release you with an “Ordennance de liberté” (subject to conditions) or detain you (in prison) with an “Ordennance de detention” for a period of a month.  After a month, you again will be brought before the judge.  The judge can extend your period for another 30 days if the case is still being investigated with no trial date set.  Pre-trial investigation, and subsequent detention, can be very lengthy.

What happens when I am charged?

You will either be freed until your case is heard or you will be remanded in custody.  The judge decides on your status, i.e. liberty or detention. If freed, you must remain in Rwanda.  Your passport will be confiscated and you may be asked to report weekly to a police station.

At your first hearing before a court you should be notified of your rights.  In theory, these are:

  • The right to an interpreter;
  • The right to consult a lawyer;
  • The right to appeal against a charge ;
  • The right to be visited at a reasonable time by Consular staff, and by members of your family;
  • If unwell, the right to be examined by a doctor.

Legal Representation

U.S. Embassy Consular staff cannot give legal advice, but they can provide you with a list of lawyers, most of whom speak English, French, and Kinyarwanda.

Categories of Charges

Serious Offenses

  • A felony is a crime punishable mainly by imprisonment of more than five years.  Felonies are tried at the “Haut Court,” or High Court, with only one appeal available.
    Possible examples (not exhaustive) include: murder, rape, armed robbery, political incitement, genocide speech, treason, drugs, major fraud.
  • A misdemeanor is a crime punishable mainly by imprisonment of a term exceeding six months but not exceeding five years.  Misdemeanor crimes are tried in the “Tribunal de Grand Instance,” with two appeals available. Possible examples include: Civil / commercial disputes and corruption.

Minor Offenses

  • A petty offense is a crime punishable by imprisonment not exceeding six months or by a fine.  Petty offences are tried at the “Tribunal de Base,” with three appeals available.
    Possible examples (not exhaustive) include: traffic offenses (including drunk driving) and petty theft.

Can I get Bail?

Yes, but it must be paid by a person of “high moral standing” (the guarantor).  The decision rests with the judge.  You will have to surrender your passport to the Rwandan authorities to prevent you from leaving the country.  If you do leave the country, the guarantor must forfeit the bail set by the judge, and other penalties may apply.  The guarantor must pay compensation for any damages caused by the accused.

Interpreters and Translators

The use of interpreters and translators is permitted, although you will likely have to hire one yourself.  The Government of Rwanda is required to provide them in theory, but in practice this is very difficult and can subject your trial to lengthy bureaucratic delays.

What happens at the trial?

A summons will be read setting out the offense, the law punishing the offense, and whether you will appear in person or be represented by a counsel.

The presiding judge or magistrate will conduct the trial in the following order:

1. The court clerk calls upon parties to the case;

2. The court clerk reads out your information; i.e. name, date of birth, place of residence etc.; particulars and the offenses for which you are being charged;

3. The court asks whether you admit or deny the charges;

4. The prosecution provides evidence against you to the judge;

5. You and your defense team present your case to the judge;

6. Witnesses for the prosecution and defense are called;

7. Expert witnesses and/or exhibits are heard or shown (if necessary);

8. The civil party (if applicable) explains his/her claim;

9. The prosecution wraps up its case;

10.  You or your defense team wrap up your case;

11.  The court clerk reads a summary of the hearing before it is signed;

12.  The hearing is declared closed and the presiding judge or magistrate informs the parties present when the judgment will be delivered (maximum 30 days).

Hearings are conducted in public.  However, a court can order the hearing to be conducted on camera (not broadcast to the public) if it deems the case detrimental to the public good.

After Conviction

Sentences: The judgment should be confirmed within 30 days of the hearing and should indicate the following:

1. The court which delivered it;

2. Your information; i.e. name, date of birth, place of residence etc.;

3.The civil party and the person liable to pay damages;

4. The offenses for which you are charged;

5. An account of steps taken during the investigation and hearing;

6. The submissions of the parties;

7. The reasons for the judgment;

8. The legal provision which has been applied;

9. The offense for which the accused is convicted, if guilty;

10.   The sentences passed;

11.  The damages to pay, if any;

12.  A decision on seized assets, if any;

13.  The presence or absence of parties at the trial;

14.  Whether the hearing was conducted in public or on camera and whether the judgment was delivered in public;

15.  The date and place of delivery of judgment;

16.  The name of any judge who disagreed with the judgment, and his/her reasons for dissenting;

17.  The names of trial judge(s) or magistrate(s); and

18.  The name of the court clerk.

The judgment should also indicate an itemized bill of court costs (they depend on the length of the judgment as well as on the quality of the supplies used), prepared by a court clerk and approved by the president of the court, and mention the timeframe within which to file an appeal.

The trial judges or magistrates sign the judgment as does the court clerk present when it is delivered.

Appeal: The following persons may lodge an appeal:

1. You;

2. The person liable to pay damages;

3. The civil party or persons who have been automatically awarded damages (civil claims only);

4. The prosecution.

An appeal should be lodged within 30 days of the judgment.

Parole: Parole, known as conditional release in Rwanda, is possible.  You must serve at least one quarter of the sentence before it will be considered.

Parole will be considered for good behavior or if you suffer from serious and incurable diseases diagnosed by 3 doctors.

Parole conditions are as follows:

1. If you are serving six months or less and up to five years, parole will be considered after serving a third of your sentence;

2. If you are serving more than 5 years, parole will be considered once two thirds of the sentence has been served;

3. If you are serving a life term, parole will be considered after twenty years. Parole can be revoked.

You will not be considered for parole if you are guilty of one of the following crimes: genocide or crimes against humanity, terrorism, sexual violence on children, treason, or espionage.

Fines: Fines and court fees must be paid to a court clerk within eight days of the final judgment.

Deportation: The Minister of Interior and Director of Immigration can deport foreign nationals deemed undesirable, or who could compromise or threaten national security or public order.

After being declared undesirable, foreign nationals can be sentenced to between 8 and 15 days in prison and fined.  All foreigners who enter or remain in Rwanda illegally can be deported with no legal recourse.

Clemency: The President of Rwanda can grant clemency.

Extradition: There is no extradition treaty between the United States and Rwanda.

Transfers: There is no Prisoner Transfer Agreement between the United States and Rwanda.

General Prison Conditions

After being sentenced, you could be taken to any of the prisons in Rwanda. Each province has at least one prison, but it is most likely you will be sent to “1930” prison or Kimironko Prison located in Kigali.

Rwanda’s prison population, although declining, remains well in excess of its official capacity, with overcrowding a significant problem.  The number of inmates to each cell entirely depends on the size of the cell and the number of prisoners in the particular prison. You may find yourself sharing a sleeping platform with several other prisoners, rather than having your own bed. Men and women are housed separately; the latter are supervised by female staff.

Prison Rules: In all prisons, sex, drugs, alcohol and cigarettes are strictly forbidden.

Drugs are strictly forbidden, but that does not prevent small quantities of marijuana and cocaine entering the confines of the prison.  Prison security is tough and if you are caught with drugs you will spend time in solitary confinement (up to a maximum of 15 days).

Health and Hygiene: If you need medical or dental treatment, you should ask to see the prison authorities. Basic medical attention is free of charge. There are no resident prison doctors, but nurses are present every day and a doctor visits prisons daily from the nearest hospital.  It is unlikely that a doctor who speaks English will treat you.  He may speak French, but most likely only Kinyarwanda. If the doctor is unable to treat you, you will be sent to the nearest local hospital.   If you need specialist medication or complex treatment, you will be expected to pay all associated costs.

HIV/AIDS is a significant problem in prisons. If you have a long-standing medical problem and have received treatment for it in the U.S., it may be useful if you have your medical records, or at least a report, sent from your doctor.  Your doctor can send the report, via the Embassy, addressed to you.

There are basic washing facilities, and it is possible to shower every day.  Hot water is generally not available. The Consular Officer from the U.S. Embassy can help provide basic amenities as well as ensure you are receiving adequate food and medical care and not being mistreated.

Food and Drink: There is minimal provision of food within the prison.  Prison food is free, but is rarely sufficient to fulfill your dietary needs.  You will need funds to supplement your diet.  Extra food can either be purchased at the canteen or brought to you by visitors.

You will be given two basic meals a day:

  • Breakfast – sorghum porridge
  • Lunch/ Dinner – Ugali (maize meal) and beans

Mail and Personal Possessions: All letters are opened and checked by prison staff before they are given to prisoners.  Mail cannot be sent directly to Rwandan prisons from the U.S.  You may be able to have a radio, CD player, cassette recorder, or television if you can afford them and depending on the situation in the prison. These items may attract unwanted attention from other prisoners. You will not have regular access to a telephone, and will not be permitted to have a mobile phone. In emergency situations, the prison authorities will let you use the phone in their office.

Work: You will likely be expected to work either in the prison or on the outside.  Prisoners’ work ranges from construction and road sweeping to working in the prison kitchen.  Prison authorities keep most of your earnings as a contribution to your up-keep.

Leisure & Education: Prison facilities in Rwanda are basic.  Some, but not all, facilities have study rooms.  Pens and paper are provided, but resources are limited.  Consular staff at the U.S. Embassy can gather reading materials for American prisoners.

English is spoken less commonly than French or Kinyarwanda, so you may want to learn French and Kinyarwanda, which will help communicate your needs and ease the boredom and mental isolation of prison life.  The central prison in Kigali (“1930”) offers English lessons for inmates.

Exercise is encouraged.  You are free to walk around the prison compound all day and on occasion prisoners are taken out to play soccer or basketball.

Consular Visits: Consular staff will visit you once every three months, though if there is an emergency they can make a special visit.  Consular Officers can assist with obtaining funds and checking on your property, as well as passing messages to your friends and family.

Family and friends may visit twice per week.  Your lawyer can visit as many times as necessary.
Foreign visitors must apply in writing to the Minister of Interior for permission to visit.  This is just a formality and permission is likely to be granted.

A few other useful tips:

  • Give your visitors the name of the consular staff member you have most contact with;
  • Check that visiting times and procedures have not changed;
  • Let them know what they can bring in for you (i.e., locally bought tobacco, but not duty-free).

The following excerpt is taken from the prisons section of the U.S. Department of Country Report for Human Rights Practices (known as the Human Rights Report) for Rwanda for 2013:

Prison and detention center conditions were harsh, although the government continued to make improvements during the year. Police sometimes beat newly arrested suspects to obtain confessions. There were reports of detainee abuse and lengthy illegal detention by police intelligence at Kwa Gacinya detention center in Kigali. There were reports that J-2 military intelligence personnel employed torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment to obtain confessions in military detention centers, although less frequently than in the previous year (see section 1.c). The SSF used undeclared detention facilities to detain and interrogate “security” detainees and military officials accused of insubordination. The government selectively permitted visits by independent human rights observers to prisons but not to undeclared detention facilities.

Physical Conditions: Men and women were held separately in similar conditions, although overcrowding was more prevalent in male wards. Fewer than 100 children under the age of three lived with their parents in prison. The Rwanda Correctional Services (RCS) provided five nursery schools, one psychosocial center, and fresh milk for the children. Juveniles were held at Nyagatare Rehabilitation Center or in special wings of regular prisons. There were no reports of abuse of juveniles, and the RCS continued to improve access to lawyers, education, and job training for juveniles. Individuals convicted of genocide-related offenses comprised a majority of the adult prison population. Authorities generally separated pretrial detainees from convicted prisoners, although there were numerous exceptions due to the large number of detainees awaiting trial.

The government continued to hold eight prisoners of the Special Court for Sierra Leone in a purpose-built detention center, which the UN deemed met international standards for incarceration of prisoners convicted by international criminal tribunals. The government held international transfers and some high-profile “security” prisoners in similarly upgraded maximum-security wings of Kigali Central “1930” Prison.

In March the government disarmed and detained more than 600 M23 combatants who crossed into the country from the DRC after an internal power struggle within the M23. The combatants were interned in a police training facility in Ngoma, which was converted into an internment center.

There were no reported prison riots, although there was a demonstration by M23 internees in September at the Ngoma internment facility. No detainees were killed, and 10 were arrested.

Prisoner deaths resulted from anemia, HIV/AIDS, respiratory diseases, malaria, and other diseases at rates similar to those found in the general population. Medical care in prisons was commensurate with care for the public at large. The government enrolled all prisoners in the national health insurance plan. Prisoners had access to potable water. The Ministry of Internal Security implemented a 2011 directive, taking full responsibility to provide food for prisoners through contracted cafeteria services, canteens, and prison gardens. Family members were permitted to supplement the diets of vulnerable prisoners with health problems. Ventilation and temperature conditions improved as overcrowding continued to decline. According to the RCS, each prison had dormitories, toilets, sports facilities, a health center, a guest hall, a kitchen, water, and electricity, as required by a 2006 presidential order governing prison conditions.

Conditions in police and military detention centers varied. Overcrowding was common in police detention centers, and poor ventilation often led to high temperatures. Provision of food and medical care was inconsistent, and some detainees claimed to have gone for several days without food. There were complaints regarding inadequate sanitation in some detention centers, and not all detention centers had toilets. There were numerous reports of substandard conditions for civilians held in military detention centers.

The Gikondo Transit Center, where Kigali authorities held street children, vagrants, suspected prostitutes, and street sellers, continued to operate despite a Senate committee’s 2008 call for its closure due to substandard conditions (see section 1.d.). Two other transit centers, where conditions generally met basic international standards, operated under the management of the Ministry of Gender and Family Promotion (MIGEPROF), as did one transit center under church management. Male transit center detainees and at-risk youth between the ages of 18 and 35 were transferred to the Iwawa Rehabilitation and Vocational Development Center on Iwawa Island, where sanitation and nutrition were substandard.

Administration: Recordkeeping on prisoners and detainees remained inadequate, but authorities took steps to transfer paper files to an electronic database. Domestic and international human rights organizations reported numerous instances of long delays and failures to locate prisoners and detainees. There were reports of forgotten detainees and of prisoners who remained incarcerated beyond their release date due to misplaced records. The RCS provided additional training to its staff on the shift from penal to rehabilitative detention as it coped with the 2011 merger of the National Prisons Service and the Works for General Interest community service program for perpetrators of the genocide. The Nyagatare Rehabilitation Center for juveniles continued renovations with the assistance of the Dignity in Detention Foundation and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) to align with rehabilitative priorities. In May 2012 the government amended the penal code to allow community service as alternative sentencing for misdemeanors and petty offenses, and the Ministry of Justice instructed judges to utilize alternative sentencing in place of incarceration for nonviolent offenders.

The law provides for an ombudsman who has the power to carry out investigations of prisons. The ombudsman also receives and examines complaints from individuals and independent associations relating to civil servants, state organs, and private institutions. Prisoners and detainees had weekly access to visitors and were permitted religious observance. Prison staff held regular meetings with prisoners and detainees to listen to inmates’ complaints and take action to resolve them when possible. The Ministry of Internal Security’s permanent secretary personally inspected prisons and took steps to hire staff for a human rights inspectorate within the ministry. The chief of defense staff supervised detention reform efforts in the Ministry of Defense.

Independent Monitoring: The government permitted independent monitoring of prison conditions by diplomats as well as the International Committee of the Red Cross, which reported that it had access on an unannounced basis to all the prisons, police stations, and military facilities it visited during the year. HRW obtained access to visit prisons, but the government repeatedly blocked access to individual prisoners. Journalists could access prisons with a valid press card but had to request permission from the RCS commissioner to interview or take photographs. The government did not permit independent monitoring of undeclared detention facilities. It also denied local human rights NGOs permits to visit prisons and police detention centers.

Improvements: There were continued improvements in the treatment of the general prison population. Overcrowding in prisons continued to decline. The Ministry of Internal Security took full responsibility for providing food to prisoners. Unannounced quarterly inspections by the Internal Security Ministry’s deputy minister led to improved recordkeeping and treatment of prisoners in RCS facilities, while periodic monitoring by the Defense Ministry’s chief of defense staff led to a reduction in reported abuses at military detention facilities. Under its strategic plan for 2012-17, the RCS undertook renovations of some of the 14 existing prison facilities and continued construction of Butamwa Prison, which was scheduled to replace Kigali Central “1930” Prison upon completion. All juvenile cases were recorded and submitted to the Ministry of Justice and other government institutions on a quarterly basis, and increased efforts were made to provide juveniles legal assistance through Legal Aid Week.