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Rwanda set to scrap death penalty

The step could remove a major obstacle to the transfer back home of defendants facing trial over the 1994 genocide.

india Updated: Jan 19, 2007 16:17 IST

Rwanda's government said on Friday it had approved plans to scrap the death penalty, in a step which could remove a major obstacle to the transfer back home of defendants facing trial over the 1994 genocide.

Justice Minister Tharcisse Karugarama said the legislation, which will have to be formally agreed on by parliament, had been voted through at a cabinet meeting this week after a lengthy period of public consultation.

"The consultations that we have held since October showed us that Rwandans favour the abolition of the punishment," Karugarama said.

The minister said the legislation would be presented to parliament "soon" for a vote which should be a mere formality given that President Paul Kagame's Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) has a large majority in both houses.

"I cannot decide for parliament, but given the support for the abolition, I hope that they will vote for the law," Karugarama said.

"If parliament adopts the law, death row convicts will have their sentences commuted to life imprisonment."

Rwanda has around 600 convicts on death row, the majority of whose sentences relate to the country's 1994 genocide in which an estimated 800,000 people were slaughtered over a three month-period.

However, survivors of the genocide have objected to the outlawing of capital punishment arguing that its presence on the statute book serves as deterrent for similar crimes in the future.

The scrapping of the death penalty would remove at least one obstacle that has prevented the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) and many Western countries from extraditing genocide suspects to Rwanda for trial.

More than three-quarters of all African countries retain capital punishment. If the proposed legislation is adopted, Rwanda would be the first country in Africa's volatile Great Lakes region to abolish it.

The ICTR, a United Nations-mandated court which sits in neighbouring Tanzania, only has powers to impose life imprisonment.

On Thursday, ICTR's spokesman Everard O'Donnell said the tribunal planned to transfer 17 genocide suspects for trial in Rwandan courts if the country outlawed capital punishment.

Of the 17, five are detained by the court and 12 others, accused of genocide roles, remain at large.

The heavily back-logged tribunal is racing to beat a 2008 deadline to clear all trial cases and is seeking to transfer suspects to national courts.

So far, four European countries have accepted to take over cases from the genocide court based in Tanzania's northern town of Arusha.

Formed in late 1994 and tasked to pursue and try masterminds of the 1994 genocide, the ICTR has thus far tried 32 suspects, convicting 27 and acquitting five.

In total, 18 suspects are still at large while eight others, under the court's custody, are awaiting trial.

Tens of thousands of lower-level perpetrators of the genocide are also facing trial by grass-roots tribunals in Rwanda, known as gacaca courts, which can hand down sentences ranging from community service to life in prison.