Rwanda: Kagame Pardons Abortion Convicts But Accomplices Will Serve Full Sentences

President Paul Kagame on Monday, May 18, exercised his prerogative of mercy to pardon 50 young women convicted of abortion, but about nine people who aided the illegal process will stay in jail to serve their full sentences.

The decision to release the abortion convicts was one of the resolutions from the Cabinet meeting held on Monday.

In a telephone interview on Tuesday, the Minister for Justice, Johnston Busingye, said: "The accomplices will not be pardoned. The message is clear. Follow the procedure set by the law that provides for safe and legal abortion or try to help your loved one before she breaks the law. About nine people who did not adhere to this will stay in jail to serve their sentences," he said.

The convicts, who fall under the collective pardon category, are considered for pardon following the Minister for Justice's written request to the President.

While a person who aborts faces one to three years imprisonment upon conviction, article 123 of the Penal Code stipulates that any person convicted of performing an abortion on another person faces imprisonment for a term of not less than three years and not more than five years.

In 2018, the Government relaxed laws granting the right to abortion to pregnant children, rape and forced marriage victims, incest victims and in circumstances where the pregnancy puts the life of the mother or the foetus at risk.

Conditional release

The Cabinet also approved a Ministerial Order granting the conditional release to 3,596 convicts.

For one to be eligible for conditional release, the convict is expected to have completed a third of their sentence if it is under five years, two-thirds of the sentence if the sentence is above five years, and they must demonstrate good conduct.

Busingye said that the judiciary's electronic case management system automatically indicates who fits the criteria before the procedures begin.

"If the convict has served the time that is stipulated by the law, the correctional service adds them to the list of those it recommends and sends it to the Ministry which vets each person on whether they are indeed fit and ready to rejoin the community and easily reintegrate," he said.

An unidentified convict

Meanwhile, President Kagame also pardoned a convict whose identity was not released.

Busingye explained that this pardon is sought by the convict through applying individually, through their family or lawyer.

Explaining why this particular individual's name was not disclosed, Busingye said the law protects some convicts' identities from being disclosed for different reasons which may include their age (minors) or their mental health if they are adults, among others.

"This is not unusual. There are cases that are heard in camera because of different reasons. The same applies to releasing the name or picture of such a convict. It is sometimes for their own protection," he said.

Activists react on release of abortion convicts

However, Chantal Umuhoza, the Executive Director of SPECTRA, an organisation that advocates for gender equality, says that abortion shouldn't be criminalised for both those doing it and those helping them.

"Continuous pardoning of convicted women is a good gesture but it doesn't address the issue from its root. Let abortion services be extended to all those that need them without questions because it falls under essential health services. Evidence shows that criminalising abortion doesn't reduce it, it just makes it unsafe," she said.

Annette Mukiga, a gender, and development specialist says that while the law was amended to improve the situation, issues of perception based on religion and culture, and the lack of enough information continue to pose a challenge.

"The law is fine but what we need is to educate people not only about this law but about all the other laws as well. Most civil society organisations don't talk about abortion. There is need to invest in teaching people about the options (for abortion) that are available and legal," she said.

This is not the first time President Kagame has pardoned those convicted of abortion.

In April last year, he pardoned 367 girls and women, while in October the same year, he pardoned another 52 persons.

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