How to best enact laws punishing crimes like abortion, adultery, genocide, and genocide ideology were among the points of contention yesterday as MPs started scrutinising a draft law that seeks to amend the Penal Code.
Members of the parliamentary Standing Committee on Political Affairs and Gender started scrutiny of the Penal Code Bill, which has sought to streamline the country's set of laws about offences and prescribed penalties.
The committee's scrutiny work paves the way for its enactment into law by all members of Parliament.
MP Alfred Rwasa Kayiranga, chairperson of the committee, said as deep debates on the Bill started, his team has about 20 days to finish its analysis of the proposal before it is submitted to the rest of MPs in the House for approval.
"We want to fast-track the enactment of this law," he told fellow lawmakers in the committee as well as government officials and members of civil society organisations who were around to witness the debates.
The Government, through the Rwanda Law Reform Commission, embarked on reviewing the penal law in 2015 as part of efforts to keep the country's laws up-to-date.
Apart from removing some offences and penalties from the Organic Law of 2012 instituting the Penal Code and placing them under special laws, the proposed Penal Code also includes adjustments on issues such as abortion, adultery, prostitution, as well as corruption and embezzlement.
As MPs embarked on the Bill's scrutiny yesterday, it was clear that they are set for a heated debate going forward, especially with regards to how best to enact laws punishing crimes like abortion, adultery, genocide, and genocide ideology.
On abortion, it's still not yet clear whether removing a court requirement as proposed by the government in the bill won't open up gaps for possible abuse of the law as some people might think that abortion is now acceptable even if it will remain illegal outside the four legally accepted cases.
Some MPs argued that the court requirement should stay in order to maximise protection mechanisms for human life.
"A human being is alive even when it's a foetus in a mother's womb," said MP Euthalie Nyirabega as she argued in favour of protecting pregnancies instead of encouraging abortion.
On adultery, the Government proposes that a spouse's forgiveness of their unfaithful partner will not automatically bring prosecution to a halt since court will be given a prerogative to accept or reject the forgiveness.
Govt explains stance on adultery
During yesterday's sitting, the state minister for Constitutional and Legal Affairs, Evode Uwizeyimana, told the MPs that the Government wants to be able to stop a situation where some adultery recidivists and their spouses would repeatedly abuse courts by flip-flopping on what they want to do about their unfaithful partners.
"People will now be more careful before bringing these cases to court and there won't be abuse of court proceedings anymore," he said.
But MP Damien Nyabyenda is worried the new provision may not be in the best interests of partners who often find that keeping their spouses in jail is more detrimental than setting them free when they want them back home.
"We need more explanations for the changes to be made on adultery. Giving a judge prerogative on this matter is not in the interest of plaintiffs," he said.
On punishing genocide-related crimes, the MPs requested Minister Uwizeyimana to urgently draft a special law to punish genocide ideology and genocide denial and trivialisation because the proposed penal code stipulates penalties on genocide crimes without indicating how genocide deniers and those harboring genocide ideology will be penalised.
"The draft (on a special law punishing genocide ideology and denial) should be fast-tracked. The Prime Minister's office should ensure that the proposal is submitted to us as soon as possible," said MP Abbas Mukama.
The minister agreed that a special law against Genocide denial, undermining genocide, and genocide ideology will be enacted on top of having penalties against genocide and war crimes clearly specified in the country's Penal Code.
Discussions will continue on Monday as members of the parliamentary Standing Committee on Political Affairs and Gender scrutinise the Bill article by article.