Despite complaints of mistreatment from the prisoners themselves, the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) recently found that the eight men currently serving sentences in Rwanda for crimes against humanity are being treated fairly and according to international standards. The SCSL was established in July 2002 to adjudicate war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during the civil war in Sierra Leone. The Appeal Chamber sentenced Allieu Kondewa and Moinina Fofana in 2008 and RUF leaders Issa Hassan Sesay, Morris Kallon, and Augustine Gbaoin 2009, to prison sentences in Rwanda. The SCSL’s standards for detention center conditions and for reviewing complaints follow customary international standards. Rule 39 of the Rules of Detention for the SCSL entitles detainees to medical services, adequate food, family visits, and the right to complain about conditions to the Chief of Detention and the Registrar of the SCSL. If there is evidence of inhuman treatment, a detainee may be removed to another prison. Although the prisoners have alleged that they did not receive proper nutrition or medical attention, a committee from the SCSL did not find sufficient evidence to warrant removal of any of men who complained of mistreatment.

The SCSL does not have the capacity to house detainees after they have been convicted, and has therefore made agreements with Finland, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and Rwanda for prisoners to serve their sentences in those countries. Having been convicted by the SCSL, the prisoners are subject to the SCSL Rules of Detention while they serve their sentences in the host country. The Amended Agreement between the SCSL and the Government of Rwanda states that the “conditions of imprisonment shall be consistent with the widely accepted international standards governing treatment of prisoners,” and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) will inspect the conditions of detention to ensure that standards are being met. International standards require that the dignity of personhood of all detainees be respected and that all basic needs, such as health, security and privacy are met in a reasonable fashion. These needs are judged in part by medical officers who advice the Chief of Detention.

Under the Practice Direction for Designation of State for Enforcement of Sentence, once the SCSL has finalized a sentence, the President of the Court will decide where the convict is sent based on all submitted information and any additional inquires he or she makes. Rwanda’s commitment to take convicted persons from the SCSL became part of Rwandan law, which requires that the detention centers maintain a standard comparable to the requirements of the SCSL. However, though conditions have improved in recent years, prison conditions throughout Rwanda have historically been criticized, and concerns of overcrowding, poor medical care, and physical abuse have been consistently put forward. Because Rwandan law requires less stringent prison conditions, there is concern that the prisoners of the SCSL in Rwanda are being denied their rights to adequate standards of detention under the SCSL Rules of Detention and customary international law. The Commissioner General of Rwandan Correctional Services stated that the SCSL prisoners are given special treatment in Rwandan prisons, although it is not clear what that entails. After a committee from the SCSL visited the prison in Rwanda and reported back to the court, the SCSL stated that the prisoners were being treated in accordance with international standards.

Based on the report issued by the SCSL earlier this month, it seems unlikely that the prisoners will be removed to another country. Rwanda is the only African country that has an agreement to accept convicted persons of the SCSL, and the President of the Court has indicated a preference for housing prisoners near their relatives. Given the difference in prison conditions between Rwanda and prisons in Finland, Sweden, and the United Kingdom, it is understandable that the prisoners would want to be transferred to one of the European countries known for better health care and more humane prison conditions. Furthermore, the prisoners’ wives could seek asylum in the European host country under European asylum laws to be near their husbands. While the SCSL prisoners’ complaints may put a spotlight on the Rwandan prison system, allegations of overcrowding and human rights abuses have long plagued the Rwandan prison system. The SCSL prisoners do not seem to be asking for better prison conditions across the Rwandan penitentiary system, but rather to be removed from the situation altogether. With the SCSL report stating no findings of abuse, it is unlikely that the prisoners will be moved to Europe.

Prisoners’ rights are an important aspect of international justice because the humane treatment of detainees and convicts legitimizes an international court’s ability to adjudicate human rights abuses. However, determining what constitutes fair treatment is challenging when prison conditions among different countries vary widely. As the SCSL has agreements with both European and African nations to host prisoners, prisoners understandably prefer sentences in European countries with better prison facilities. However, there is a limited amount the SCSL can do without clear evidence of prisoner abuse and violations of international standards.