|© UNICEF Rwanda/2009/Bhimani|
|The Musanze High Level Court, in Rwanda. 19-year-old Ruhirwah spent three years in prison for a crime he did not commit. He was acquitted thanks to a campaign supported by UNICEF and its partners.|
By Zahra Bhimani
MUSANZE, Rwanda, 14 August 2009 – It was early morning in Musanze when children who had been in prison awaiting trial finally got a legal hearing.
Ruhirwa, 19, an orphan and care-provider for three younger siblings stood before the judge. The verdict ended a very painful period in the young man's life.
"I was accused of a crime I did not commit three years ago and was put in this prison with older men. I was sixteen years old then. I am so grateful that the judge acquitted me today," he said.
Children in prison
Ruhirwa is one of the 600 children in prison in Rwanda who finally have access to free legal aid services this week, thanks to an initiative launched by the Ministry of Justice and supported by UNICEF, the Dutch Government and other partners.
An ongoing study of children in prison estimates that of the 600 children detained with adult prisoners, the vast majority are young boys from poor backgrounds who cannot afford legal aid. More than half of these children have never had a trial, and their files have not been opened.
"This week-long event was put in place to ensure that the rights of children are met, and that those awaiting trial will finally have access to the justice system," said UNICEF Rwanda Chief of Child Protection Francesca Morandini.
A chance to be heard
Many young children accused of crimes from petty theft to homicide were given a chance this week to tell their side of the story.
As the hearings continue in Musanze and other parts of Rwanda, some basic issues are becoming clear – one of the reasons these children have been detained is that they do not have any identification proving their age.
Birth registration is the right of every child, but in many developing countries, children are not registered at birth and miss out on essential rights and services, including access to health care and education. They are also at risk of abuse, including trafficking and detention in adult prisons, as was the case with Ruhirwah.
Commitment to justice
UNICEF remains committed to making sure young people in Rwanda receive justice before the law.
"We look forward to continuing to work together with the Ministry of Justice in Rwanda, as well as other partner non-governmental organizations to ensure that the rights of children in Rwanda are met," Ms. Morandini said.
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