Rwanda has proposed life imprisonment for human traffickers in new measures intended to lead the way in suppressing the growing multi-billion dollar criminal cartels.
A draft Bill before parliament proposes the heavy punishment for traffickers of more than one person, repeat offenders and those trafficking vulnerable people like children and pregnant women.
“We want to send a strong message that human beings are not commodities, and that whoever thinks otherwise must pay heavily,” said Nadine Gatsinzi Umutoni, Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Gender and Family Promotion.
Offenders who promise to help their victims secure a job may also spend the rest of their lives behind bars, if the lawmakers approve the Bill.
A majority of those rescued by the Rwandan police in recent years have revealed that their traffickers had promised them jobs abroad.
Besides the jail term, the Bill proposes a fine of $12,000, and seizure and confiscation of places used for trafficking in persons, proceeds of crime and objects used for the commission of the offence.
The draft law also seeks to increase the conviction rate for human trafficking by minimising offenders’ defences and encouraging victims to speak out. “The consent of a victim of trafficking in persons to the intended exploitation shall not be relevant to the perpetrator’s defence against a charge of trafficking in persons,” reads the Bill.
In an attempt to encourage victims of trafficking to give evidence, the Bill dismisses criminal responsibility of victims for illegal entry or residence in Rwanda and their involvement in any unlawful activity linked to their situation as a trafficked persons.
To afford more protection to victims, the Bill provides that foreign victims of trafficking on Rwandan territory only be repatriated to their country of origin with consent.
“In instances where the repatriation of a victim of trafficking in persons from Rwanda to their home country is likely to or would expose the trafficked person to danger, the government may permit the trafficked person to stay in Rwanda for such a period as the authority may consider necessary.”
Children, however, will not be returned to their countries of origin if there is an indication, following a risk and security assessment that their return would not be in their best interest.
The draft law appears have been inspired by President Paul Kagame’s hard stance against the offence.
Three years ago, when the country’s Law Reform Commission started working on amendments in criminal laws, the head of state challenged the judiciary to deal with trafficking in persons and called for tougher measures to deter the vice.
“We cannot allow Rwandans to be sold off like merchandises on the market,” President Kagame said. “Our people are not merchandise.”
“Everyone should have a role in ending this vice; those who offer themselves up to be trafficked and those trafficking them should all stop,” he added.
The government says combating trafficking in persons is a matter of concern to the state. The country wants to establish a proper and systematic mechanism for prevention, punishment and reintegration of victims of trafficking.
Last year, the gender monitoring office reported that “some trafficking victims reported being under threat and fear to go back to their communities because of stigma.