(Nairobi) – A Rwandan refugee who had served as a bodyguard for Rwandan President Paul Kagame was forcibly returned by Ugandan police to Rwanda after going missing on October 25, 2013. His whereabouts were unknown for six days. The man, Joel Mutabazi, is now in police custody in Rwanda, in an undisclosed location.
Mutabazi had survived a bungled abduction in Uganda in August as well as an assassination attempt in July 2012, in both cases by unknown perpetrators. The Ugandan police were informed about all these incidents and had agreed to provide him with 24-hour security.
Ugandan authorities have said they are investigating the incident and have suspended the Ugandan police officer who arrested Mutabazi and erroneously handed him over to the Rwandan authorities, according to a government statement.
“The Ugandan police have utterly failed to protect this refugee, who was clearly at serious risk,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director. “It’s unconscionable that they handed him over summarily to the police force of the country whose persecution he fled.”
Rwandan and Ugandan authorities claim that Mutabazi is accused of terrorism and other offences in Rwanda, and was the subject of an international arrest warrant issued by Rwanda. But the Ugandan government statement admits that handing Mutabazi to Rwanda without any court proceedings is contrary to its “established legal procedure” and the “Police Code of Conduct.”
The Ugandan authorities should immediately put in place effective measures to protect Rwandan refugees and asylum seekers, particularly those whose security is at risk. The Ugandan authorities should urgently complete the investigation they have announced into Mutabazi’s handover to Rwanda and publish its findings without delay.
Mutabazi should be transferred back to Uganda and subject to a formal extradition procedure in a Ugandan court, including consideration of the human rights implications of the transfer and his refugee status.
“Uganda had granted Mutabazi refugee status in 2011, which means his risk of persecution in Rwanda had been established and recognized,” Bekele said. “If Uganda is serious about remedying the error of handing him over to Rwanda without any legal process, they should ask the Rwandan authorities to return him and allow the Ugandan courts to decide the extradition request.”
Mutabazi was first arrested in Rwanda in 2010. According to sources interviewed by Human Rights Watch, the government accused him of being close to General Kayumba Nyamwasa, a prominent Rwandan government opponent exiled in South Africa. Mutabazi was detained incommunicado for several months in a military camp in Rwanda and there is credible evidence he was tortured.
In 2011 Mutabazi fled Rwanda and sought asylum in Uganda, where he was granted refugee status in October 2011. On July 12, 2012, a man armed with a gun came to his house in Kasangati, a suburb of Kampala, and fired at Mutabazi, but missed him. After this incident, the Ugandan government and the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) arranged for Mutabazi to be placed under police protection in a guesthouse in a different area.
On August 20, 2013, a group of armed men, some in Ugandan police uniforms, others in civilian clothes, abducted Mutabazi from the guesthouse, forced him into a car, and drove off with him. Some of the men in the car were speaking Kinyarwanda, the language of Rwanda, Mutabazi has said. Mutabazi was released the same day, after senior Ugandan government and police officials intervened.
The Ugandan authorities and the UNHCR then arranged to move Mutabazi to a different location, where he was under 24-hour police protection. It was from this second location that he disappeared on October 25.
Human Rights Watch wrote to the Ugandan inspector general of police, General Kale Kayihura, on October 30 for an explanation of Mutabazi’s disappearance, and tried to call him, but has not received a reply. The Ugandan police spokesperson refused to discuss the case when contacted by telephone and referred Human Rights Watch back to General Kayihura.
On October 31, the Rwandan police announced that Mutabazi was in their custody. In a public statement, they said the Ugandan authorities had handed him over because he was wanted for terrorism and other crimes in Rwanda.
In a press release on October 31, the Ugandan minister for relief, disaster preparedness, and refugees, Hilary Onek, claimed that Mutabazi had escaped from his hotel, police had apprehended him, and “in an error of judgment and misinterpretation of the International Arrest Warrant, [a police officer] regretfully handed him over to the Government of Rwanda officials.”
At the time of Mutabazi’s abduction in August, the Ugandan police issued a statement saying they were responding to an extradition request from the Rwandan police, via Interpol, alleging that Mutabazi was wanted in connection with armed robbery in Rwanda. The statement said, however, that, “The Uganda Police Force would not hand over the suspect to any country, without going through legal procedures of deportation or extradition, as the law requires.” No such procedures were followed in either August or October.
In an October 31 statement, the Rwandan police said that Mutabazi is wanted for “terrorism and other crimes” and suspected of involvement in grenade attacks led by the Rwanda National Congress, General Nyamwasa’s exiled opposition group, in collaboration with the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a predominantly Rwandan armed group operating in eastern Congo that consists in part of people who took part in the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
Human Rights Watch met with the Rwandan police commissioner for public relations and community policing, Damas Gatare, on November 1, but he said he could not provide details of the case beyond what was in the official police statement. He would not disclose whether Mutabazi had access to a lawyer. When Human Rights Watch asked him where Mutabazi was detained, Gatare said that investigations were ongoing and that “depending on the nature of the case, we might not disclose the location.”
Human Rights Watch expressed concern that Mutabazi could face an unfair trial in Rwanda, as has been the case with other alleged criminal suspects whom the government accused of having links with the opposition. Rwandan judicial authorities should ensure that due process is respected and proceedings conform to international fair trial standards.
“We are worried about Mutabazi’s well-being in Rwanda,” Bekele said. “The Rwandan authorities should guarantee his safety, publicly disclose his whereabouts, allow him access to a lawyer and visits by relatives, and, if he is to be charged, promptly bring him before a court.”
UNHCR should accelerate the determination of refugee claims by Rwandan asylum seekers in Uganda and expedite the third-country resettlement of Rwandan refugees who might be at risk in Uganda.
Mutabazi’s forced return to Rwanda and the earlier threats against him take place in the context of a well-documented pattern of repression of Rwandan government critics, both inside and outside Rwanda. Critics and government opponents have been arrested, detained, and prosecuted in politically motivated trials in Rwanda, and others outside the country have been repeatedly threatened. Some have been physically attacked and even killed.
Rwandan intelligence services have pursued suspected opponents abroad, particularly in Uganda, where the geographical proximity and close links between the two countries effectively allow Rwandan intelligence agents considerable freedom to operate. Rwandan refugees and asylum-seekers in Uganda have frequently reported to Human Rights Watch that they have been threatened and followed by people they believe are Rwandan intelligence agents. Ugandan journalists trying to report on difficulties facing Rwandan asylum seekers have raised similar concerns.
In August, around the time of Mutabazi’s abduction, another exiled former member of the Rwandan security forces, Innocent Kalisa, was reported missing in Uganda. His whereabouts and the circumstances in which he disappeared remain unknown.
Pascal Manirakiza, a Rwandan who had sought asylum in Uganda after escaping from the M23, a Rwandan-backed armed group in the Democratic Republic of Congo, also disappeared in August. He was found a few days later, alive but unconscious, with serious injuries.
On November 30, 2011, an exiled Rwandan journalist, Charles Ingabire, editor of the online publication Inyenyeri News and a vocal critic of the Rwandan government, was shot dead in Kampala.
Attacks on opponents and critics have also taken place farther afield. In June 2010, General Nyamwasa narrowly escaped an assassination attempt in South Africa. Nyamwasa, a former chief-of-staff of the Rwandan army and once a close ally of President Kagame, became an outspoken government opponent in exile and co-founded the opposition Rwanda National Congress. In May 2011, two Rwandans living in the UK were warned by the London Metropolitan Police that there were threats to their safety emanating from the Rwandan government.