On Friday, Rwandan lawmakers voted to abolish capital punishment. Once law, it could encourage the transfer of war crimes suspects to face trial back home in Rwanda.
The move comes as the international war crimes tribunal for Rwanda, sitting in neighboring Tanzania, nears the end of its mandate next year. As many as 800,000 Tutsis and Hutu moderates were massacred during Rwanda's 100-day genocide in 1994. The tribunal — which has been hearing most of the high-profile genocide cases, but has a huge backlog — is beginning to wrap up business.
The Rwandan government has been frustrated at the slow pace of genocide trial proceedings in Tanzania. But the existence of the death penalty on the statute books has been a major concern for the International Criminal Court for Rwanda, as well as for countries holding genocide suspects or fugitives, believed to be at large in North America, Europe and West Africa.
The decision by the Rwandan parliament to scrap capital punishment would also mean that death sentences on 800 death row suspects within the country would be automatically commuted to live imprisonment.
But a national referendum in 2003 voted overwhelming for the retention of the death penalty in Rwanda. And there has been a mixed reaction to parliament's new law. Many genocide survivors are strongly opposed to the abolition of the death sentence. They say parliament has moved too hastily and failed to consult the people first.
The Rwandan government argues that capital punishment has not served as a deterrent for crime. And other Rwandans believe it has not helped in national reconciliation or rehabilitation since the 1994 genocide.
Rwanda's prisons are currently home to thousands of genocide suspects who are still awaiting trial. The death penalty was last used in 1998, when 22 genocide convicts were put to death, in front of a firing squad. This prompted international condemnation and petitions from human rights' bodies for capital punishment to be suspended in Rwanda.