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Rwanda: Rusesabagina Was Forcibly Disappeared

Violations of Prominent Critic’s Rights Raise Fair Trial Concerns

Paul Rusesabagina, who was detained on August 27, 2020, is paraded in front of the media in handcuffs at the headquarters of the Rwanda Investigation Bureau in Kigali, Rwanda on August 31. © 2020 Clement Uwiringiyimana/Reuters

(Nairobi) – The government of Rwanda’s arrest of a prominent critic of the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) amounted to an enforced disappearance, a serious violation of international law. Rwanda should immediately grant the government opponent, Paul Rusesabagina, access to legal counsel of his choosing, confidential consultations, and regular contact with his family. They should allow him promptly to exercise his right to challenge the legality of his arrest, represented by legal counsel of his choosing before an independent tribunal applying international human rights norms.

Rusesabagina, who fled to Belgium in 1996 and is now a Belgian citizen living in the United States, traveled from the US to Dubai, United Arab Emirates, on August 27, 2020. Family members told Human Rights Watch they exchanged WhatsApp messages with him that evening, but that they were not able to contact him again, and knew nothing of what happened to him until the Rwanda Investigation Bureau (RIB) announced it had Rusesabagina in custody in Kigali, Rwanda, on August 31. Rusesabagina’s family were not able to speak with him until September 8.

“Rwanda has an established track record of using unlawful, cloak-and-dagger methods to target those it perceives to be a threat to the ruling party,” said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The fact that Rwanda did not pursue Rusesabagina through lawful extradition proceedings suggests the authorities do not believe their evidence or fair trial guarantees would stand up to scrutiny before an independent tribunal, and so opted to circumvent the rule of law.”

Human Rights Watch spoke with three family members and one of Rusesabagina’s lawyers, and reviewed publicly available information, including data on flights between Dubai and Kigali and interviews given by President Paul Kagame and the spokesperson of the Investigation Bureau.

Rusesabagina is best known as the manager of the Hotel Mille Collines, a luxury hotel in central Kigali where hundreds of people sought protection during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. After the genocide he fled Rwanda, fearing for his safety. He later became a fierce critic of the government of Rwanda and co-founded the opposition Rwandan Movement for Democratic Change (Mouvement rwandais pour le changement démocratique, MRCD), a coalition of opposition groups, which has an armed wing known as the National Liberation Forces (Forces de libération nationale, FLN). The FLN has claimed responsibility for several attacks in Rwanda’s Southern Province since 2018.

More than 10 days after Rwanda acknowledged that Rusesabagina was in their custody, the authorities have failed to provide a consistent or full account of how he was apprehended and came to be in their custody. In particular, Rwandan authorities have not disclosed in whose custody Rusesabagina was when he was detained in Dubai on August 27 until his reappearance in Kigali on August 31.

Rusesabagina spoke to three family members over the phone on September 8. A family member told Human Rights Watch they are concerned that Rusesabagina was not speaking freely because two lawyers who are not included in the defense team they put together were present during the conversation. Family members also said that the two lawyers were present during a visit by Belgian consulate staff on September 7.

It is disputed whether Rusesabagina has been given access to a lawyer of his choosing, as Rwandan authorities confirmed to the media they had turned away a lawyer who presented himself as authorized by Rusesabagina’s family to represent him.

Rusesabagina’s family members told Human Rights Watch they are concerned that Rusesabagina is being given different medication than he normally takes for his health issues.

Rwandan authorities initially said they arrested Rusesabagina through international cooperation, but on September 8 seemed to backtrack, suggesting they alone arrested Rusesabagina and other countries only helped earlier investigations. If so, this means that Rwandan agents were operating on UAE soil to detain him.

An unnamed UAE official quoted in a CNN article said Rusesabagina had left the country “legally” on a private jet to Rwanda several hours after arriving in the UAE. A report by Radio France Internationale confirmed that a Bombardier Challenger 605 jet owned by Gainjet company – which has an office in Kigali and is regularly used by Rwandan officials, including the president – left Dubai’s Al Maktoum international airport around 1 a.m. on August 28 and arrived in Kigali airport hours later.

On September 6, President Kagame denied allegations of kidnapping: “There was no kidnap…. He got here on the basis of what he believed and wanted to do … it was actually flawless.”

Rusesabagina, while in custody at Remera Police Station, was presented for an interview to The East African on September 3, in which he declined to answer questions about his arrest and arrival in Rwanda. In his interview with The East African, Rusesabagina said he was being given access to food, medication, and medical assistance and was in the process of choosing his legal counsel. It is highly suspicious that a criminal suspect should give an “exclusive” press interview before he has been granted access to his lawyers, consular services, or contact with his family, Human Rights Watch said.

Rwandan authorities should urgently provide a complete and corroborated account of how Rusesabagina was apprehended and transferred to Rwanda, Human Rights Watch said. Based on Human Rights Watch research examining publicly available information, Rusesabagina was in the custody of the Rwandans or their proxies as of the night of August 27 but his detention was not acknowledged by the Rwandans until August 31, meaning he was forcibly disappeared for at least three days.

When authorities deprive someone of their liberty and refuse to acknowledge the detention, or conceal the person’s whereabouts, they are committing an enforced disappearance, a crime under international law and prohibited under all circumstances. Those involved in and responsible for such acts should be held criminally responsible, Human Rights Watch said.

The lawful detention and transfer of a suspect from one country to another to face criminal proceedings should be accomplished through extradition proceedings, overseen by an independent tribunal to verify the legality of the extradition request and conduct an assessment of whether the suspect’s rights, including to protection from inhuman treatment, due process, and a fair trial, will be guaranteed. The fact that Rwandan authorities circumvented the legal process of extradition in Rusesabagina’s case seriously undermines their claims as to the legitimacy and good faith of their efforts to prosecute him.

Under the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (the “Convention against Torture”), which the Rwanda and the UAE ratified in 2008 and 2012, respectively, no one is to be sent to a country where there are substantial grounds for believing that they might be tortured or mistreated. This obligation has been interpreted to require governments to provide a mechanism for people to challenge decisions to transfer them to another country.

Belgian authorities should urgently complete an investigation into Rusesabagina’s handover to Rwanda and publish its findings without delay, Human Rights Watch said.

“The Rwandan authorities’ handling of this case so far has flouted many of the protections enshrined in international law, raising serious concerns about Rusesabagina’s well-being and right to a fair trial in Rwanda,” Mudge said. “The gravity of the charges against Rusesabagina do not give Rwandan authorities free rein to resort to the crime of enforced disappearance and ignore due process and international fair trial standards.”

Fair Trial Concerns for Longtime Government Opponent

Over the years, Rusesabagina has become a prominent critic of the Rwandan Patriotic Front, and has accused Kagame of arming secret militias. In December 2018, Rusesabagina denounced Kagame’s government in a video on YouTube and called for the “use [of] any means possible to bring about change in Rwanda as all political means have been tried and failed.” In the video, he pledges “unreserved support” to the FLN, the armed wing of the MRCD. Since 2018, the FLN has claimed responsibility for several attacks around Nyungwe forest, Southern Province, near the border with Burundi.

In April 2019, Rwandan judicial authorities confirmed that Callixte Nsabimana (also known as “Sankara”), a leader of the movement and the spokesperson for the FLN, was in their custody, several weeks after he had been reported missing by his family. His family told the media he was kidnapped in the Comoros, while Rwandan authorities said he was extradited through “international cooperation.”

The Rwandan foreign affairs minister at the time, Richard Sezibera, told the media “he was arrested and brought [to Rwanda]” but did not give details of where and through which procedure he was transferred. Nsabimana pleaded guilty to all charges against him, which include forming an illegal armed group, terrorism, murder, kidnap, and genocide denial.

On September 6, Kagame said: “Rusesabagina heads a group of terrorists that have killed Rwandans. He will have to pay for these crimes. Rusesabagina has the blood of Rwandans on his hands.” The president’s statements, made before any independent judicial process has determined Rusesabagina’s guilt, undermine the prospects that he will get a fair trial in Rwanda. This has often been the case with other alleged criminal suspects whom the government accused of having links with the opposition and armed groups, Human Rights Watch said.

On September 9, Rusesabagina was reportedly brought to the National Public Prosecution Authority and his file transferred to the prosecution. Rusesabagina should be provided access to legal counsel of his choosing during any interrogation or hearing, Human Rights Watch said.

Under Rwanda’s counterterrorism law, a terrorism suspect can be provisionally detained for up to 15 days, renewable for up to 90 days. However, article 9(3) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) provides that “Anyone arrested or detained on a criminal charge shall be brought promptly before a judge or other officer authorized by law to exercise judicial power.”

The Human Rights Committee, a body of independent experts that monitors implementation of the ICCPR, has said that the delay between the arrest of an accused and the time before they are brought before a judicial authority “should not exceed a few days.”

Based on all relevant human rights norms, Human Rights Watch’s position is that anyone detained by state authorities for whatever reason should, within 48 hours from the start of their detention, be physically brought before an independent judicial officer to be allowed to challenge the legality of their detention, barring extraordinary circumstances that make it impossible to do so. In any event, the period of 15 days permitted under Rwandan law violates international law and Rwanda’s treaty obligations.

On September 7, Rusesabagina’s lawyers filed an urgent appeal to Dr. Nils Melzer, the United Nations special rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.

On August 31, 2020, the Belgian and US governments told the Associated Press they had no information on the case.

Rusesabagina’s lawyers based in the US said that in the past he had “endured break-ins at his home, received death threats, and survived an assassination attempt in 1996.”

Rusesabagina, a US green card holder, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by George W. Bush in 2005 and the Tom Lantos Human Rights Prize in 2011. On September 2, Assistant Secretary for the US Department of State’s Bureau of African Affairs Tibor Nagy tweeted that the US expects the Rwandan government to provide humane treatment, adhere to the rule of law, and provide a fair and transparent legal process for Rusesabagina.

Dissidents Targeted in Rwanda

Rusesabagina’s prima facie illegal forced return to Rwanda takes place in the context of a well-documented pattern of repression of Rwandan government critics, both inside and outside Rwanda. The government has arrested, detained, and prosecuted critics and government opponents in politically motivated trials in Rwanda, and repeatedly threatened others outside the country. Some have been physically attacked and even killed.

In 2017, Human Rights Watch documented systematic patterns of torture, enforced disappearances, illegal and arbitrary detention, unfair trials, and other serious human rights violations in military detention centers in Rwanda, from 2010 to 2016, in clear violation of Rwandan and international law. 

These illegal detention methods were found to be designed to extract information from real or suspected members or sympathizers of armed opposition groups, including the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (Forces démocratiques de libération du Rwanda, FDLR), an armed group based in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, some of whose members took part in the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. In trials observed by Human Rights Watch since 2010, judges put pressure on defendants accused of terrorism-related charges and prevented them from testifying about their unlawful transfer or detention.

Most recently, Rwandan authorities failed to conduct a credible and transparent investigation into the suspicious death in police custody of Kizito Mihigo, a well-known singer, in February 2020. Rwandan authorities claimed he had “strangled himself” in his cell at Remera Police Station. Mihigo, a government critic previously prosecuted and imprisoned for four years, had expressed concern to Human Rights Watch shortly before his death that he faced a serious risk of being killed by government agents.

Mihigo was held incommunicado in an unknown location for nine days in April 2014, where he said he was beaten, threatened, and forced to confess to crimes with which he was later charged. In February 2015, the High Court in Kigali sentenced him to 10 years in prison for alleged offenses of forming a criminal gang, conspiracy to murder, and conspiracy against the established government or the president. He was released in September 2018 after a presidential pardon. He was rearrested in February 2020 at the Burundi border.

After years of threats, intimidation, mysterious deaths, and high profile, politically motivated trials, few opposition parties remain active or make public comments on government policies.

In 2019, three members of the unregistered Forces démocratiques unifiées (FDU)-Inkingi opposition party were reported missing or found dead. In September, Syldio Dusabumuremyi, the party’s national coordinator, was stabbed to death. At the time, the Investigation Bureau announced it had two men in custody. Eugène Ndereyimana, also a member of the FDU-Inkingi, was reported missing on July 15, after he failed to arrive for a meeting in Nyagatare, in Rwanda’s Eastern Province. Anselme Mutuyimana, an assistant to the FDU-Inkingi’s then-leader, Victoire Ingabire, was found dead in March with signs of strangulation. The Investigation Bureau said it had opened investigations into the cases.

In December 2019, the Rwandan Court of Appeal upheld the conviction of two former military officials, although the court reduced their sentences to 15 years each. On March 31, 2016, the Military High Court of Kanombe sentenced Col. Tom Byabagamba and retired Brig. Gen. Frank Rusagara to 21 and 20 years in prison, respectively, on charges including inciting insurrection and tarnishing the government’s image. Human Rights Watch condemned their convictions for criticizing the authorities and government policies and the use of unreliable evidence in their trial, including reports of ill-treatment and inadequately treated health problems in detention.

Dissidents Targeted Abroad

In addition to the repression of critical voices inside Rwanda, dissidents and real or perceived critics outside the country – in neighboring Uganda and Kenya, as well as farther afield in South Africa and Europe – have been victims of attacks and threats. 

The victims of the attacks abroad have tended to be political opponents or outspoken critics of the Rwandan government or President Kagame himself. Former RPF officials who have turned against President Kagame and become opponents in exile have particularly been targets of attacks and threats. There are similarities between attacks in high-profile cases; for example, the assassinations of former Minister of Interior Seth Sendashonga in 1998 and former Head of External Intelligence Patrick Karegeya in 2014, and the attempted assassination of former army Chief of Staff Kayumba Nyamwasa in 2010, the former in Kenya, and the latter two in South Africa.

Karegeya, the former head of Rwanda’s external intelligence services and a prominent government opponent exiled in South Africa, was found murdered in a hotel room in Johannesburg on January 1, 2014. In 2019, South Africa’s National Prosecution Authority issued arrest warrants for two Rwandans accused of murdering him. During an inquest into Karegeya’s murder, South Africa’s special investigative unit said in written testimony that Karegeya’s murder and attacks on Rwanda’s former army chief of staff Gen. Kayumba Nyamwasa “were directly linked to the involvement of the Rwandan government.”

Following his murder, the Rwandan president, prime minister, and ministers of foreign affairs and defense all publicly branded Karegeya as a traitor and an enemy, implying that he got what he deserved. 

Some Rwandan refugees and asylum seekers faced security threats in their country of asylum, particularly in Uganda. Armed men abducted Joel Mutabazi, a former presidential bodyguard in Rwanda with refugee status in Uganda, on August 20, 2013 from a safe-house in a suburb of the capital, Kampala, where he had been staying since escaping an attempt on his life in Uganda in July 2012. He was released the same day, thanks to intervention by the Ugandan police.

On October 25, 2013, he was reported missing from another location where he was living under 24-hour Ugandan police protection. His whereabouts were unknown for six days. On October 31, the Rwandan police confirmed he was detained in Rwanda but refused to disclose where he was held. On November 13, he appeared before a military court in Kigali with 14 co-accused, charged with terrorism and other offenses. The Ugandan government claimed that a Ugandan police officer had erroneously handed Mutabazi to the Rwandan police, without following correct legal procedures.

In October 2014, a military court found Mutabazi guilty of terrorism, forming an armed group, and other offenses linked to alleged collaboration with an exiled opposition group and the FDLR. He was sentenced to life in prison.

Mutabazi and several co-defendants told the judges they had been tortured and forced to sign statements. The judges did not order any investigation, but the president of the court said at the end of the trial that the court had sentenced several defendants to long prison terms because they had lied about being tortured.

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