Rwandan opposition politician, Victoire Ingabire, wins a partial victory in the first round in her fight against the country’s laws governing genocide ideology.
High Court judges in Rwanda have partially suspended the trial of opposition leader Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza until the country’s Supreme Court rules on the constitutionality of the genocide ideology laws she is challenging–laws that allow for the punishment of children as young as 12 years old.
Victoire Ingabire launched a legal challenge in a Kigali court earlier this week to nullify the laws related to “divisionism” and “genocide ideology,” arguing they are too broad and being exploited by Paul Kagame’s government to limit the freedom of thought.
The court on Monday suspended all debate about the controversial ideology law, but decided to continue the proceedings against Ingabire on the other charges she faces, including collaborating with rebel groups to destabilize the country.
Ingabire maintains that the so-called “18/2008 laws” governing genocide ideology are so abstract that even legal experts don’t understand their meaning and scope.
Genocide ideology is defined in Rwanda’s penal code as “an aggregate of thoughts characterized by conduct, speeches, documents and other acts aiming at exterminating or inciting others to exterminate people basing [sic] on ethnic group, origin, nationality, region, color, physical appearance, sex, language, religion or political opinion, committed in normal periods or during war.”
“This is a controversial law that leads to different interpretations,” says one Rwandan lawyer who wishes to remain anonymous. He points out that because Rwanda has ratified the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, the country is bound by it, and that the Genocide Convention supersedes national law.
“The Rwandan law on genocide ideology aims to punish on the basis of ‘conduct, speeches, documents and other acts’ aimed at exterminating or inciting others to exterminate people…,” says the lawyer. “This law is not in conformity with the Geneva Convention since it does not prescribe that the acts have to constitute a ‘direct and public incitement to commit genocide,’” as the Convention stipulates.
Rwanda’s law, he says, is unconstitutional, since the Rwandan constitution explicitly states that international treaties and conventions adopted by the country must be upheld. He cites the list of acts which, according to the current rules governing genocide ideology, constitute a manifestation of the crime: “marginalizing, laughing at one’s misfortune, defaming, mocking, and boasting.”
“The law is seen by many law specialists and human rights organizations as impossibly vague, broad and abstract,” reported Amnesty International in 2010. The Rwandan lawyer agrees. “The Government of Rwanda, through its Minister of Justice Karugarama, promised that it will amend those controversial rules,” he told RNW. “But until now, they are in force and have been used as an instrument to arrest the opposition against the ruling party in Kigali.”
The Rwandan government has indeed recognized the shortcomings of its own laws and, in 2010, it initiated a review of the genocide ideology law. Authorities invited international human rights advocacy groups, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, to participate in the process, but so far, the laws remain on the books.
If the government or parliament fail to amend the current laws—or draft new ones—it could be left to the country’s Supreme Court, which has the authority to declare the genocide ideology laws unconstitutional. In the case of Victoire Ingabire, judges in the land’s highest court now have the chance to do just that.
By International justice desk, Hilversum