New Internationalist

Rwanda – why I support the death penalty

Issue 408

If anyone has good reason not to, it’s Jean Baptiste Kayigamba.

Amnesty International
Imprisoned suspects: ‘The Government cannot put to death thousands and thousands of people.’ Amnesty International

The decision by the Rwandan Government to abolish the death penalty came as a surprise to many. After the 1994 genocide of one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus, it seems unthinkable. But, following a vote by Parliament in June 2007, President Paul Kagame signed a decree to remove the penalty from the country’s statute book.

Even 13 years after the mass-killings the wounds are still fresh and may never heal. There are very deep motives for this unending trauma that will mark my life, that of my children and many thousands of other survivors.

It was during the genocide that my dad Gabriel, mum Domitila, brothers Gerard, Benoit, Alponse and Amabilis, 15-year-old sister Esperance and nephew Aimable were brutally murdered – not to mention scores of aunts, uncles, cousins, friends and former classmates at secondary school and university, or the people I worked with when I was a teacher and later an independent journalist in Kigali. Only my niece, Louise, miraculously survived.

They all perished in mid-April 1994 at the hands of the murderous government army, the police, the notorious Hutu militias and the Hutu mob. I never got a chance to give a decent burial to my people. Some were dumped in mass graves, others were just buried in shallow graves and later exhumed by the authorities before we could locate their remains.

They were killed by neighbours we had lived alongside for decades without any problem. I know who these killers are, like the person who hit Gerard with a club three times on his head, finishing him off. Some were briefly detained and then released; others have carried on their normal lives in my village, or fled the country.

But, though I may be bitter, I do not wish any act that could be interpreted as revenge. The crimes are not excusable. However, despite the agony and trauma, putting to death those who murdered my parents and relatives would not bring them back. The Government cannot put to death thousands and thousands of people. By doing so, it would be carrying out the same barbarity that characterized previous regimes, which trivialized the lives of the people.

Rwanda has lifted a major obstacle to the deportation of renowned genocide suspects, like Leo Mugesera in Canada. He was a member of the Akazu – kitchen cabinet – of the then Hutu President Juvenal Habyarimana. Mugesera made a speech to 1,000 Hutu members of his party telling them to kill Tutsis by sending them back to where they came from – ie Abyssinia – by a short cut, dumping them in the Nyabarongo, a tributary of the Nile. Hundreds of Tutsi were massacred in his home region in the northwest of Rwanda and in other parts of the country.

Though I may be bitter, I do not wish any act that could be interpreted as revenge

Some of the most-wanted genocidaires are holed up in Western countries, including Britain and North America. The Government’s move will reassure these countries that if the genocidaires are sent back to Rwanda they will not be put to death.

I am aware that not all genocide survivors have welcomed the decision. It requires courage to look forward and turn the page on the enormous suffering that recent history has brought us.

But there are many things we Rwandans, both victims and victimizers, stand to gain. According to Louise Arbour, the UN Human Rights Commissioner, Rwanda’s decision is a ‘powerful endorsement of the importance of pursuing justice while repudiating violence in all its forms’. The abolition of the death penalty should also help to cement national reconciliation and set standards for African nations to emulate.

Jean Baptiste Kayigamba is a journalist now living in Britain.

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