Reports that the prime suspect in the murder of six family members in the southern district of Ruhango in August had escaped from prison before committing the horrendous crime sent shock waves across the country.
Steven Baribwirumuhungu, who has so far confessed to committing the gruesome murder and is being held on remand, was serving a 20-year sentence fora previous murder when he escaped from prison mid this year.
It is not yet clear how and when the 28-year-old managed to escape from the high-security Mpanga Prison. What is known is that he was among a batch of hundreds of prisoners who were relocated to the Nyanza-based prison following a fire that razed a building and properties at Muhanga Prison where he had been jailed.
His trial, which will likely start in a few weeks, will be another subject. The big issue now remains how a murder convict managed to escape from cell, find his way into the community and remain there unbothered for weeks, or even months, until he committed a heinous crime and vanished for some days.
Many believe that the crime could have been avoided had the public been alerted that a ‘dangerous’ convict had escaped from the prison and was roaming the community. Had the public been engaged in efforts to track him down, perhaps he would have been re-arrested before taking six more innoncent lives, public opinion suggests.
The question that remains then is how does the Rwanda Correctional Services (RCS), the authority that is tasked with ensuring inmates’ safety and ensuring that convicted people serve their sentences, deal with the issue of prison escapees.
Why does the public remain uninformed on the presence of individuals who escape from the various correctional facilities across the country and possibly engage them in tracking and re-arresting them? Why does it seem that the whole issue is surrounded by secrecy?
These are some of the questions that still linger in the minds of many, particularly following criminal incidents involving people who were later identified as prison escapees.
Silence on possible escapees
There are no known figures of people escaping from various correctional facilities. But recent reports carried in local media quote the Minister for Internal Security, Sheikh Mussa Fazil Harelimana, as saying the escape rate is as little as one per cent.
Figures released last year indicated that more than 55,000 people were held in various prisons across the country.
Whatever the numbers are, however, there are fears that prisoners might be escaping from various correctional facilities and hide within the unsuspecting public.
The escapees find it easy to settle in communities mainly because the public seem to be less engaged in efforts to identify the whereabouts of the escapees.
The New Times has documented a limited number of cases of escapes from various prisons across the country.
First, there were reports from locals in Muhanga town that dozens of detainees might have made their way out of prison following the blaze that gutted Muhanga prison last June.
Though this paper could not independently verify the claim, residents say they saw a “dozen or so” individuals in prison uniforms running from the prison and disappearing.
The Rwanda Correctional Services had earlier denied the reports, calling them “mere rumours.”
Also, reports in the local media indicate that recently, an inmate who was serving a life sentence, escaped from Kimironko Prison in the capital Kigali. It is not yet clear whether he has been re-arrested or if he remains on the run.
Last year, five convicted inmates made their way out of Butare Prison in Huye District after caving a hole through the prison’s wall. News of their escape emerged almost a week after they had gone missing and authorities declined to give their names and identities.
However, it emerged later that the escapees were serving longer sentences after having been convicted of Genocide charges. Three of them had been sentenced to life in prison and two others had been given sentences of 20 and 30 years in jail, The New Times later established.
As of today it also remains unclear if they were rearrested and returned to their cells.
Of concern is that there seems to be little access to information about the escaping prisoners, efforts to track them and how many of them are being returned to their cells.
And to worsen things, some of these individuals have been only arrested after committing other crimes, sometimes sending a message that had they remained in hiding or had they not committed any other crime, they wouldn’t have been found and detained.
One of such is Baribwirumuhungu, who was detained after slaughtering a mother and her five children in Byimana Sector, Ruhango District.
This paper has also obtained evidence that at least one prison escapee was among the five suspects Police arrested and paraded before the media in Muhanga District in July over the murder of a guard and theft of music instruments at a Pentecostal church.
These are just some of the examples.
Rwanda National Police Spokesperson Damas Gatare told The New Times that the Ruhango case is not the first. He, however, said he could not establish exactly how many such cases the Police has handled and referred us to the RCS.
Several efforts to get a comment from the Rwanda Correctional Services were futile as authorities kept claiming they were too busy to handle requests from this newspaper.
When Baribwirumuhungu appeared before Muhanga Intermediate Court, he narrated how he murdered the six members of the same family in Ruhango and hinted to the reasons why he committed the heinous crime.
One of them–and perhaps the most plausible–was that he feared, in his own words, “to be betrayed” by his host family, which he went on to slaughter one after another.
“I feared I was going to be arrested and taken back to prison,” he told the court at his initial hearing.
His descriptions of events that led to the gruesome murder gives the image of someone who wanted to remain in hiding and would do anything, including more murders, to remain at large.
It later emerged that the suspect, who was arrested in Ngororero Sector, had also changed his name to evade justice.
Escaping from prison is a criminal offense that attracts penalties, including increased jail term, according to the Penal Code.
Generally, prison escapees are considered a threat to public safety that a public notice should be issued the moment they vanish to prevent possible crimes and involving the public in efforts to re-arrest the suspect.
Details of the escapees, particularly their names, photos and physical features, are expected to published and made accessible to the general public.
In some countries, even when a convict is released from jail after serving their sentences, sometimes they are put under close monitoring, particularly if they had committed violent or serious crimes such as murder or rape.
Some members of the public believe that the same approach can be of great help for the Rwandan community and that involving the public in hunting for prison escapees and other suspected criminals by publicising their identities could ease efforts to arrest them.
Police speaks out
The Southern Regional Police spokesperson, Hubert Gashagaza, says the Police works with other security organs, including RCS, to identify, track and re-arrest those who escape before completing their jail sentences.
Gashagaza says usually the process looks like the routine exercise of identifying and arresting suspected criminals but sometimes it involves complicated and extensive investigations.
“Criminals are not stupid people. Sometimes they take their time to obliterate evidences that might lead to their arrests. Tracking them down sometimes takes time,” Gashagaza says.
He says tracking down criminals, including those who escape from prisons, requires joint efforts by security agencies and the general public.
However, the officer says this doesn’t mean always publicising their details “as sometimes it might complicate investigations instead.”
“When we want to publicise a suspect’s identity, we first assess all the implications,” he says.
“There is no single strategy that you can say is completely effective. We always employ several techniques and sometimes that involves publicising names and details of wanted people for public help in tracking and arresting them,” Gashagaza adds.
He says the role of the public in ensuring security and contributing to the timely arrest of those who escape from prisons – as well as other criminals – remains vital.
“Residents should always ensure they have details of individuals they are not acquainted with and the motives of their visits in their villages and whenever they have suspicion, call in authorities. That could greatly contribute to uncovering and arresting criminals who want to evade justice,” Gashagaza says.
The officer also revealed that Police are working on developing a software that would make it easy to have details of convicts who complete their sentences and eases efforts to monitor them to prevent them from committing other crimes.
This, Gashagaza says, is because many former convicts are likely to repeat criminal activities in the future even after they have completed their sentences. End by JP Bucyensenge The new Times Rwanda
Posted here by Albert Gasake