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(Nairobi) – Military and civilian authorities in western Rwanda have arrested, beaten, or threatened people who challenged recent government decisions to force residents off their land, Human Rights Watch said today.

The arrest of Oscar Hakundimana in Nyamyumba, on December 7, 2016, after he voiced objection to a government decision to force 30 families off their lands.  © 2016 Private

One case involves a long-standing land dispute in Nyamyumba, Rubavu district, where local authorities have begun forcing residents off their agricultural land in favor of another family with a disputed claim to the land. The other involves the construction of a new so-called “model village” in Kivumu, Rutsiro district, where some residents who will be forced to leave their land raised concerns about what they see as insufficient compensation.

“Threats, arrests or beatings are no way to handle a situation in which people are losing their land and livelihoods,” said Ida Sawyer, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The government’s goals to settle land disputes and modernize villages are legitimate, but trampling on the rights of those most affected who express their fears for their land and their livelihood is not.”

Between January and March 2017, Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 20 residents of Kivumu and Nyamyumba and others knowledgeable about the cases, and observed and analyzed court proceedings relating to the cases.

The government intimidated, threatened, or, on some occasions, beat the few residents who criticized the government, even moderately. Officials arrested prominent community members and charged them with inciting insurrection, warning other residents not to speak out and generating a chilling effect throughout the community.

Many people who work their land for a living fear that the government-imposed solution would threaten their livelihoods. In the two cases in Nyamyumba and Kivumu, the local government imposed a solution without the full informed consent or participation of residents, and without the involvement of any judicial or otherwise independent authority to provide a fair process for adjudicating disputes, Human Rights Watch found.

In Nyamyumba, although a powerful family had longtime claims to the land, residents who farmed the land had in recent years been given land titles. One of them won a court case against the family. But in November 2016, the mayor of the district of Rubavu ordered 30 families to leave their land. Several meetings were held in the area, in which residents were threatened and prevented from speaking out. Local civilian and military authorities accused farmers who fled their villages in fear of arrest of being rebels.

When a community leader, Oscar Hakundimana, objected to the mayor’s decision, he was arrested on December 7 and charged with rebellion and inciting insurrection. Residents who protested his arrest were beaten. His trial started on March 28, 2017.

In Kivumu, preparations have begun to construct a “model village,” a centralized settlement in which four families will share a modern home that is provided with basic amenities, such as water and electricity. Residents in the area will be forced to leave their homes and farms to make way for the model village, with varying amounts of compensation. The government plans to create a model village in each of the country’s 30 districts.

While Kivumu residents have welcomed some aspects of the plan to build a modern village, many say that their rights have not been respected during the expropriations process, including the right to free expression, fair compensation, and public participation, and that they fear serious negative consequences for their food security and income when they have to leave their land. Others are not comfortable with the idea of sharing a home with other families, in a grouped settlement. Several residents who attempted to ask questions or raise concerns about the process told Human Rights Watch that local authorities intimidated or threatened them and told them to keep quiet.

Léonille Gasengayire, native of Kivumu, arrested in 2016 for voicing opposition to land expropriations, prosecuted for inciting insurrection but acquitted by a court on March 23, 2017.  © 2016 Private

A student and political activist from the region suspected of opposing the plan, Léonille Gasengayire, was arrested in August 2016, and charged with inciting insurrection. Residents who tried to testify on her behalf at her trial were intimidated. A court acquitted and released her on March 23, 2017.

The Rutsiro district mayor told Human Rights Watch that she was not aware of any criticism of the expropriations. The Justice Ministry and other local officials did not respond to repeated requests from Human Rights Watch to discuss its research findings on these two cases.

Rwanda is the most densely populated country in continental sub-Saharan Africa. Land is a scarce resource and has been a cause of tension throughout the country’s history. In 2001, Human Rights Watch published a report on a government policy to regroup Rwandans in government-created villages, employing coercion against those who resisted, resulting in many human rights abuses. Land was often expropriated without due compensation or consultation with the residents, and many Rwandans who spoke openly against the policy or refused to obey were punished by fines or arrest.

“The Rwandan government’s intolerance for dissent goes beyond political opposition leaders, journalists, or human rights activists who dare to report on government abuses,” Sawyer said. “The government can demonstrate its genuine commitment to the basic rights of its people, rights such as freedom of opinion and expression and fair process, by releasing Oscar Hakundimana immediately. It should stop harassing others who have spoken out against the government’s land decisions.”

Land Dispute in Nyamyumba
The land dispute in Rubona cell, Nyamyumba sector, Rubavu district, is intertwined with Rwanda’s history. Following violence and large migrations into and out of Rwanda since the so-called “revolution” in 1959, when ethnic Hutu took over leadership positions after waves of ethnic violence, ownership of the land in the area has been disputed and alternated between the Munyegomba family, whose claim originates prior to 1959 and is currently supported by local authorities, and a group of 140 families who have occupied and farmed the land for many years.
The disputed land in Nyamyumba sector, Rubavu district. © 2017 Private

Members of the Munyegomba family fled Rwanda after 1959, and other residents occupied their land. The family returned after the genocide in 1994, when those who had occupied the land in their absence fled to the Democratic Republic of Congo. The residents who had fled returned in 1996 and 1997, to find that the land had been reoccupied.

The Munyegomba family left the land again a few years later, when armed groups with a base in Congo, commonly referred to as “infiltrators,” carried out deadly attacks in Rwanda in the late nineties. The residents who had returned from Congo successfully petitioned the national authorities to get their land back. They again started farming the land, and continued to do so until recent months.

Between 1998 and 2011, the Munyegomba family attempted to reclaim the land through judicial proceedings against a community leader – the father of Oscar Hakundimana – but failed: In appeal, a court ruled that the land belonged to Hakundimana’s father. During the national land registration process, the land of Hakundimana and other residents was registered, and the farmers were given land certificates, despite the Munyegomba family’s opposition.

At the end of 2015, however, local authorities announced during a community meeting that agricultural land belonging to 30 households – an earlier claim concerned 140 households – should be handed over to the Munyegomba family. Three people who voiced their opposition to this announcement, including Oscar Hakundimana, were arrested and released the next day.  

Several other community meetings followed in 2016, at which local authorities continued to press residents to give up their land claims. In August 2016, the police called in 30 people for questioning and briefly detained Hakundimana, who had again publicly refused in a meeting to abandon his land. A local official threatened other residents with arrest.

On November 24, the mayor of Rubavu, Jeremie Sinamenye, came to the village and announced at a community meeting that the 30 households had to leave their land before January 20, 2017. He said they had acquired the land fraudulently, that residents had agreed earlier to leave their land, and that they would have to pay rent if they refused to leave.

During the community meeting, Hakundimana criticized the mayor’s decision. A participant in the meeting later told Human Rights Watch:

Oscar said that the government should respect the law, but that there seemed to be other things going on. He said, “We have legal documents. But now you come to take them. Is it not the same government [who gave us the land titles]?” The mayor responded: “Don’t you know who I am? You have become a rebel against us. I don’t know how I can respond to you.”

The day after the meeting, residents wrote a letter to the provincial and national authorities, asking the governor of the Western province to suspend the mayor’s decision, given that the mayor had ignored their legal land titles.

In an apparent response, soldiers arrested Hakundimana on December 7, 2016. During his arrest, Hakundimana and several others were beaten. One of them later told Human Rights Watch:

The military arrested Oscar and brought him to a military camp. […] When they arrived in our village, those of us who live nearby asked the soldiers: “We’ve heard that you kill people. Did you arrest Oscar just to kill him? We know he is innocent. Why did you arrest him?” The soldiers told us that we are all rebels against the government, and that they cannot tolerate our mistakes. Then they beat us severely with wooden sticks.

Hakundimana has been in pretrial detention ever since. Human Rights Watch research indicates that he was beaten and threatened in prison, in an apparent effort to force him to leave his land.

The prosecutor’s office accused him of asking during the meeting with the mayor which branch of government the mayor represented, and of saying that the Rwandan government detests its population, so the population should also detest the government. During a hearing on March 28, the prosecution also accused him of speaking to the media. Hakundimana denies the accusations and told the judges during a pretrial hearing that he was arrested because of the land dispute and his insistence that his father won a court case about this land, so he could not now surrender his claims to the land.

After Hakundimana’s arrest, several residents fled their homes for several days, fearing arrest. “Police and military are looking for us,” one resident told Human Rights Watch while in hiding. “We feel targeted. We cannot access our fields because the police and military are there. If they find us, they won’t take us to the police; they’ll kill us.”

Residents told Human Rights Watch that they were concerned about the independence of the authorities and afraid of being arrested. One said:

Our opponents come to our farm land and destroy our crops. When we ask questions about this to the authorities, they don’t respond. These other people [who also claim the land] have more power than us. They are supported by the government and can take our crops. We are afraid that, even today, we can be arrested. They accuse us of being members of political parties that are outside of the government.

After some had gone into hiding, the local military commander accused them in a community meeting of joining the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a largely Rwandan Hutu armed group, based in eastern Congo.

The wife of one of the residents who was targeted said:

It is a problem of money. Our opponents are rich people who have a lot of money, and they are backed by the military and the authorities. They persecute us to get our land. […] They registered my husband on a list of a political party, the PS-Imberakuri [an unregistered opposition party]. But he doesn’t know how this happened. They do this to find evidence to persecute people, to say that they are against the government.

Several residents spoke to the media about their situation and they now fear that the fact they spoke to the media was part of the reason for the repression against them. One was quoted in Kigali Today, a news outlet sympathetic to the government, saying: “We can leave if they compensate us with other land. But how can we give them these lands, as it is those lands that allow us to live?”

Another resident spoke to Voice of America about Hakundimana’s arrest:

These charges that they accused him of are lies. How can he provoke insurrection of the population against the state when he participates in a meeting by the authorities? They just want to accuse him of false accusations to frighten the other residents.

Hakundimana has been charged with “rebellion” and “inciting insurrection or trouble among the population.” His trial began on March 28, 2017. The judgment is expected on April 26.

In response to a letter from residents, the governor of the Western province visited the area on December 21. Regarding Hakundimana’s arrest, he said, “such a thing does not happen in this country” and that residents cannot be imprisoned for expressing an opinion. He instructed the mayor of Rubavu to find a solution to the dispute. Yet, nearly three months later, the situation has not changed and Hakundimana is still in detention, while his trial is ongoing.

The Rubavu mayor visited the locality after the governor’s visit, but he has not announced how the dispute will be addressed. He did not comment on Human Rights Watch’s findings. 

‘Model Village’ in Kivumu
An area of Buyonyo cell in Rutsiro district’s Kivumu sector is designated for the construction of a new “model village.” According to the district’s performance contract, a contract signed each year between the Rwandan president and the district mayor to set the district’s objectives, the model village will be used to relocate households from zones that are deemed to be high risk for floods or landslides and from scattered settlements. Fifty-seven households were told in August 2016 that they were going to have to leave their land, which would be used to construct the new village.

Government repression in land cases. © 2016 John Emerson for Human Rights Watch

Many residents said the compensation they were offered was insufficient. Several told Human Rights Watch that only people with larger plots received compensation, or that the compensation for their houses, land, and crops did not equal the actual value. Some were told that they would be partly compensated with a place in the model village.

Others said that the legal procedures under Rwanda’s 2015 law on expropriations were not followed. The law establishes the procedure for approving expropriations in the public interest and for determining compensation for land, activities carried out on that land, and for the disruption caused by the expropriation. Those affected must be duly informed about a decision to expropriate and must be present during the valuation procedure. The owner of the land can approve or challenge the decision reached by the assessor. The law states that “fair compensation must be paid to the expropriated person before he or she relocates.”

Some residents said that the expropriation of their property without equivalent replacement land creates serious risks for their food security and livelihood. One farmer said: “We really admire the development of our country. But the development of this country should also consider our food security. We cannot live in houses without land to provide for our food.”

Several residents said that living with four families in one house, in a centralized settlement, as will be the case for the model village, is contrary to their traditional and preferred way of living. One farmer said:

These houses in a model village are like a camp. I prefer to be alone in my house, instead of living with others. I won’t be free as before. The community prefers having one house per family, but the government refused. We can’t be against the government, so we accepted, but it’s not by our own will.

Residents told Human Rights Watch that the expropriation procedure took place in a context of insufficient information and intimidation. Several complained that they could not voice their criticism. One farmer said:

Nobody can ask questions about the compensation or the problems about the model village. Members of parliament visited our village. Nobody tried to ask questions because everybody knows that they will be chased away from the village if they ask questions. The whole population is severely intimidated.

Another resident complained about the official in charge of registering properties:

When we ask him something, he responds very angrily. He intimidates us and doesn’t understand. He does the registration by himself and gives the impression that it doesn’t concern us. […] When I asked him about something that was said during a community meeting, he responded: “I didn’t tell you to ask me questions. You shouldn’t listen to other people. I will tell you what will happen.”

When Léonille Gasengayire, a young student activist native of the area, was suspected of speaking out against the expropriation of the land and of demanding fair compensation during a private meeting in August 2016, authorities arrested her and later put her on trial for “inciting insurrection or trouble among the population,” charges she denied.

Several residents told Human Rights Watch that they were forced to testify against Gasengayire. The also said that local government officials tried to prevent defense witnesses from attending her trial.

One resident said that a local government official told them in January 2017: “Nobody has the right to go to court to be a witness for Léonille [Gasengayire]. If there are people who go, they can be killed or have other problems.” Another resident said the same government official had said that residents would not be allowed to return to their village if they had testified on her behalf.

Defense witnesses at first failed to show up during the trial, observed by Human Rights Watch, but later did testify.

Gasengayire’s name was regularly cited in community meetings in an effort to warn other residents not to speak out. One resident who attended such meetings said:

When the authorities come to the village, they say: “You saw the example of Léonille [Gasengayire]. If you refuse to do as we want, you will become like her. We are giving Léonille 18 years in prison.” Léonille has become a song that the local administration sings in front of the community.

During the pretrial hearings, Gasengayire was also accused of promoting the opposition FDU-Inkingi political party. Gasengayire is a member of the party and was briefly arrested in March 2016. Like all but one opposition party in Rwanda, the FDU-Inkingi has been unable to register as a party. While Rwandan law criminalizes the “illegal formation or leadership of a political organization,” Gasengayire was not charged with this offense and her political activities do not appear to have violated Rwandan law.

On March 23, 2017, the judge of the High Court chamber of Rusizi rejected the testimony of the prosecution witnesses and local officials, acquitted Léonille, and ordered her release after seven months in pretrial detention. Human Rights Watch observed the proceedings.

The Rutsiro district mayor told Human Rights Watch that she was not aware of any criticism about the expropriations. “We organized several meetings there and nobody complained,” she said. “Maybe these people are not happy with the value [of the compensation], but they accepted it. There were no threats.” She declined to comment on the arrest and prosecution of Gasengayire.

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