Stalling, Silence on Activist’s Death
(Nairobi) – Official investigations into the murder of a Rwandan anti-corruption activist appear to have ground to a halt six months later. The case has received surprisingly little public attention, and the victim’s family is still awaiting justice. Human Rights Watch has visited the town of Rubavu where the body was found and interviewed witnesses and the police.
Gustave Makonene, coordinator of Transparency International Rwanda’s Advocacy and Legal Advice Centre in Rubavu, northwestern Rwanda, was last seen leaving his office in Rubavu on the evening of July 17, 2013. Residents of Nyiraruhonga found his body on the morning of July 18 just off a road along the shore of Lake Kivu. A police medical report indicates he was strangled.
As part of his work for Transparency International, Makonene had handled allegations of corruption, some of which reportedly involved members of the police.
“Corruption is a sensitive issue in Rwanda, as in many countries,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The murder of Makonene should have raised alarm bells. Instead there has been a disturbing silence.”
In the days following the discovery of Makonene’s body, local police arrested four people in connection with the murder, but they were released in August for lack of evidence. Since then, investigations by the police and the prosecutor’s office appear to have stalled.
In discussions with independent witnesses and with the police, Human Rights Watch learned that a man in civilian clothes, who introduced himself as an employee of the national utilities company but was later identified as a police officer, visited the Transparency International Rwanda office in Rubavu three times before the murder of Makonene, including two days before he was killed.
On each occasion, the officer tried to ascertain what Makonene looked like and what his movements were. He asked for and obtained Makonene’s personal phone number, but apparently did not call Makonene or talk to him directly, even though Makonene was in the office during one of his visits. On the day of Makonene’s murder, the man phoned a person close to Makonene to try to confirm his location.
The police questioned this police officer and sent the statement to the prosecutor’s office. The police told Human Rights Watch that the officer had been asking questions about Makonene in a personal capacity.
“The fact that Makonene may have been looking into police corruption and that a police officer was seeking to confirm his identity just before his murder raises questions, at the very least,” Bekele said. “The police should explore all potential leads, including by interviewing people around the site where Makonene’s body was found.”
Human Rights Watch spoke with numerous residents of Nyiraruhonga, including some who discovered Makonene’s body. One of them described how Makonene was found slumped against a tree, with a rope around his neck. The witness said that when the rope was taken off, a deep bruise was visible on Makonene’s throat.
Makonene’s body was found just off a road leading out of Rubavu, past the BRALIRWA brewery.The only practical way to reach this road is to drive through the brewery gates. The brewery monitors access to its gates at night, except in the case of police or military vehicles. Multiple witnesses confirmed to Human Rights Watch that Makonene left his office on July 17 after 8 p.m.
The location of Makonene’s body makes it likely that police could determine how the body came to be there, and possibly who brought it, Human Rights Watch said.
Two people were identified to Human Rights Watch as witnesses who saw Makonene’s body dumped from a vehicle. But they declined to speak to Human Rights Watch, even confidentially, illustrating the extreme sensitivity of the case.
After the police arrested four men in connection with Makonene’s murder, the prosecutor’s office ordered the release of two of them and argued for preventative detention for the other two. However, the Rubavu Court of Higher Instance ordered their release on August 5 on the basis that the prosecutor lacked evidence against them. The Musanze High Court upheld that decision on August 29.
On December 7, Major Vita Hama, the spokesman for the Rwanda National Police, Western Province, told Human Rights Watch that there had been no significant progress in the case and that the prosecutor’s office had not asked the police to investigate further. Damas Gatare, spokesman for the Rwanda National Police at the national level, told Human Rights Watch on December 16 that the case had been handed to the prosecutor’s office and that Human Rights Watch should contact it for details.
The Rubavu prosecutor referred Human Rights Watch to the spokesman for the National Public Prosecution Authority, Alain Mukuralinda, who confirmed on December 18 that the case had not progressed. However, Justice Minister Johnston Busingye told Human Rights Watch on December 24 that the file was still open.
Makonene’s murder received very little public attention. The silence illustrates the weakness of independent organizations and media in Rwanda. As a result of years of government intimidation, threats, and infiltration, few Rwandan nongovernmental organizations carry out detailed investigations or publish reports on politically sensitive issues or human rights abuses by government agents. Even fewer carry out in-depth work on corruption. Most Rwandan journalists also avoid investigating or reporting on sensitive cases.
Rwandan authorities should revive their investigations into Makonene’s murder, Human Rights Watch said, both to deliver justice and to reassure anti-corruption and human rights activists that the police and prosecuting authority treat such cases with the seriousness they deserve. Transparency International said that it was continuing advocacy to press law enforcement authorities in Rwanda for a conclusion to the police investigations.
“In most other countries, the unresolved murder of an anti-corruption campaigner would have made the headlines, and independent groups would be clamoring for justice,” Bekele said. “Instead, it seems everyone is just hoping the issue will go away. This sends a chilling message to those campaigning for accountability in Rwanda.”