The appeal hearing of the case involving 21 members of the Rwanda Movement for Democratic Change (MRCD)/National Liberation Front (FLN), who were convicted on terror-related charges, continued in the Appeals Court on Wednesday with Prosecution and Defence disagreeing on previous sentences.
Prosecutors maintain that the judges in the High Court Chamber for International and Cross-border Crimes handed out lighter jail terms to some of the individuals in the case, including Paul Rusesabagina, and want the Court of Appeal to quash the sentences handed out on September 20 last year.
A lengthy debate around the legality of the sentences erupted in the court with Prosecutors maintaining that the Court of Appeal should revise the penalties upwards, as stipulated in the law, in regard to the alleged crimes but defence lawyers disagreed and said that the High Court did not commit a mistake in determining the sentences.
Among other things, Prosecution insists that the High Court judges misinterpreted the law and handed light sentences in comparison to the crimes the defendants were found guilty of committing.
This mainly concerns 12 individuals who appealed including, Callixte Nsabimana, Marc Nizeyimana, Siméon Nikuzwe, Joseph Ntabanganyimana, Marcel Niyirora, Emmanuel Iyamuremye, Herman Nsengimana, André Kwitonda, Emmanuel Nshimiyimana, Jean Chrétien Ndagijimana, Théogène Hakizimana and the only female in the case Angelina Mukandutiye.
For instance, Prosecutors say that Nsabimana, a former FLN Spokesperson, who on Wednesday appealed to court to revisit his case, exercise some leniency and reduce his 20-year sentence, should have been handed a minimum of 25 years, as per the law, based on the five charges he was found guilty on.
Prosecutors argue that the terror-related charges carried a maximum life sentence and wonder if Articles 62 and 60 of Law No. 68/2018 which provides for crimes and punishments in general, were considered in determining the sentences.
They insist that by law, the minimum conviction the likes of Nsabimana and Nzeyimana should have received shouldn’t have gone below 25 years in prison, whether there were mitigating factors or not, as opposed to life imprisonment.
In the case of Rusesabagina, who is not attending court sessions, Prosecutors say the full provisions of the law should be followed and upgrade his sentence to life imprisonment.
State Prosecutors also say other defendants including Ntabanganyimana and Nikuzwe should have been handed a minimum of 15 years if the law was properly interpreted, instead of the 10-year sentences they received, while the same applies to five of the other defendants, including Nsengimana, who got five years, instead of sentences not less than 15 years.
In doing so, Prosecution said the High Court disregarded the provisions of the law, something the Court of Appeal should put into consideration.
The Prosecution argued that the decision of the High Court was contrary to the principle that the court rules in accordance with the provisions of the law, as provided for in Article 47 of Law No. 68/2018 on Criminal Procedure and Punishment in General.
It also shows that it is against the principle that no offense can be reduced except in the circumstances and in the manner provided for by law, as provided for in Article 48 of the said law.
Lawyers of the defendants accused the Prosecution of attempting to bully the Court of Appeal into discrediting the decision of the earlier court, which they say did not flout the law in handing out convictions, pointing out that the move would set a bad precedent in regard to the independence of courts.
Jean Rugeyo, a lawyer representing Nsabimana and Nsengimana, both former FLN Spokespersons, said that the claims of the Prosecution are unfounded because the High Court Chamber for International and Cross-border Crimes did provide the basis on which it determined the sentences.
They also accused Prosecution of turning around to seek elevated sentences for the same people who pleaded guilty to the charges, apologized and accepted to cooperate with the justice process, which in this case calls for consideration of mitigating circumstances under which their punishment can be reduced.
Rugeyo’s position was reiterated by Joseph Ngamije, a lawyer representing Ntabanganyimana, who argued that the High Court exercised its independence in determining the sentences and explained grounds on which the sentences were determined and that should be respected.
He said that the High Court had not erred because the Judge had acted in accordance with the law, an argument which was reiterated by James Uramije, who represents Niyirora, Nshimiyimana, arguing that Prosecution should desist from accusing High Court Judges of misinterpreting the law.
The protracted debate saw defence lawyers argue that the High Court did provide what it based on to issue the sentences while at the same time acknowledging that the defendants could have received much heavier sentence in regard to the charges.
They insisted that the position of the High Court should be respected and instead allow Judges in the Court of Appeal to independently review the case and come up with its own verdict, which is in line with the principle of independence of courts.
The case in the Court of Appeal has seen other defendants including Théogène Hakizimana, André Kwitonda, Jean Chrétien Ndagijimana and Siméon Nikuzwe launch an appeal to the Court of Appeal to revisit some of their defence arguments which they say were disregarded by the previous court.
The claimed that they were forcefully recruited into armed groups due to the dire situation they were in but it was not their choice and this should be looked into by the Appeals Court.
Similarly, Mukandutiye, who was found guilty of recruiting people into an armed group or terrorist organisation, said that she had cooperated with the judicial process and prayed to court to give her a lighter punishment and consider rehabilitating her.
Prosecution contends that the emotional appeals before the judge or exhibiting remorse before court is not applicable in such cases due to the gravity of charges, hence court should strictly stick to what the law says and precedents presented before it.
The debate also centred around some of the individuals in the case who had not appealed in the stipulated 30 days but also sought to make their case in the appeal trial heard, since it is one file. Prosecution urged court to disregard any appeal that did not fall within the confines of the law.
Justice Rukundakuvuga adjourned the appeal hearing to Friday, with the defendants expected to respond to the sentences requested by the Prosecution.