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Rwanda: Crackdown on Opposition, Media Intensifies

Space for Dissent Closes

Rwandan opposition leader Victoire Ingabire leaves Nyarugenge prison, on the outskirts of Kigali, after being released on September 15, 2018. © 2018 Cyril Ndegeya/AFP via Getty Images

(Nairobi) – Rwandan authorities have arrested nine people linked to an opposition party and a journalist in the last week, as they intensify their crackdown on opponents and critics, Human Rights Watch said. The crackdown appears connected to an event, “Ingabire Day,” organized by the unregistered opposition party Dalfa-Umurinzi, that had been scheduled for October 14, 2021, to discuss among other things political repression in Rwanda.

Théoneste Nsengimana, a journalist who had intended to cover the event and host a discussion on his YouTube channel with Victoire Ingabire, the party’s leader, was arrested on October 13.

Several party members and regional representatives – Sylvain Sibomana, Alexis Rucubanganya, Hamad Hagengimana, and Jean-Claude Ndayishimiye – were also arrested at their homes on October 13, as was Joyeuse Uwatuje, Ingabire’s close friend and personal assistant.

According to sources within the Dalfa-Umurinzi party, Alphonse Mutabazi was arrested on the morning of October 14, and Marcel Nahimana, the party’s secretary-general, and Emmanuel Masengesho were arrested the evening of October 14. Régine Kadoyimana, an administrative assistant in the party, was arrested on October 16 at her home in the capital, Kigali.

“The Rwandan government’s latest crackdown underscores that it is unwilling to tolerate debate and criticism,” said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “These blatantly arbitrary and politically motivated arrests are intended to further discourage people from speaking out against government policy or abuse.”

The Rwanda Investigation Bureau (RIB) announced in a tweet late on October 13 that Nsengimana and five other unnamed people had been placed under arrest for “publication of rumours intended to cause uprising or unrest among the population.” It also tweeted a warning against those who use social media to “undermine national security” and “incite divisions.” The agency has not made any public announcements about the four other arrests.

According to sources within the Dalfa-Umurinzi party, the ten were arrested in different parts of the country, but all except Kadoyimana, the last one arrested, are now being held at Remera police station in Kigali. Kadoyimana is reportedly detained at Kicukiro police station, but Human Rights Watch was not able to independently confirm this. The RIB spokesperson did not respond to Human Rights Watch’s requests for information. All have been given access to a lawyer. On October 18, a RIB agent called Ingabire to summon her to the investigation bureau’s headquarters in Kigali, but at time of publication she had not yet been.

Rwandan law includes overly broad and vague provisions that enable arbitrary limitations on free speech and that violate the right to freedom of expression and media freedom protections under international law. One of the laws being used to curb free speech is the Law on the Prevention of Cybercrimes, which prohibits the publication of “rumours,” punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine of up to three million Rwandan Francs (US$3,000).

However, whether information is factual does not in itself constitute legitimate grounds to criminalize speech under international law. These charges are wholly inappropriate and underline how the justice system is being used as a tool to stifle dissent and intimidate the public, Human Rights Watch said. All ten people arrested should be immediately and unconditionally released.

Ingabire, the former president of the unregistered opposition party FDU-Inkingi before creating Dalfa-Umurinzi in November 2019, was sentenced to 15 years in prison for conspiracy to undermine the established government and denying the genocide after she tried to contest the 2010 presidential elections. She was eventually pardoned and released in September 2018.

Sibomana, the FDU-Inkingi’s then-secretary-general, was first arrested alongside another member of the party, Anselme Mutuyimana, in 2012 and accused of holding an illegal meeting in a bar. Mutuyimana was released in 2018 but found dead in mysterious circumstances in March 2019. Sibomana was released in 2021.

Nsengimana was previously arrested in April 2020, alongside three other bloggers and a driver, all working with Rwandan YouTube channels that reported on the impact of the Covid-19 guidelines on vulnerable populations. Charges were brought against Nsengimana, Dieudonné Niyonsenga, known as “Cyuma Hassan,” the owner of Ishema TV, and his driver, Fidèle Komezusenge.

Nsengimana was held in pretrial detention on accusations of fraud but released in May 2020 for lack of evidence. Niyonsenga and Komezusenge were accused of forgery, impersonating journalists, and hindering public works but both were acquitted on March 12, 2021. The prosecution appealed the acquittal, and the hearing is expected in November.

On October 14, the Rwanda Media Commission issued a statement claiming that Niyonsenga is not a journalist. Rwanda’s narrow definition of journalists as “a person who possesses basic journalism skills and who exercises journalism as his/her first profession” runs counter to international standards and has allowed the government to prosecute bloggers doing important public interest reporting, Human Rights Watch said.

In March, Human Rights Watch documented the growing crackdown on people using YouTube to report on human rights abuses and current affairs and to hold political discussions. Between March 2020 and March 2021, at least eight people reporting or commenting on current affairs were threatened, arrested, prosecuted, or “disappeared” in mysterious circumstances.

Online commentators, such as Yvonne Idamange and Aimable Karasira, have also used their videos to discuss the 1994 genocide, the crimes committed by the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) in its aftermath, and the government’s commemorations of the killings.

Idamange, a Tutsi genocide survivor who accused the government of monetizing the genocide and called for a protest, was found guilty, in a trial held behind closed doors, of inciting violence and public uprising, denigrating genocide artifacts, spreading rumors, and violent assault, among other charges on September 30. She was sentenced to 15 years in prison. On May 31, Karasira was arrested on charges including denying and justifying the genocide and instigating divisions, and has not yet been tried.

In recent years, several members of the FDU-Inkingi – now Dalfa-Umurinzi – have reported being detained incommunicado, beaten, and questioned about their membership to the party. In January 2020, six members were convicted of charges including forming or collaborating with irregular armed forces and offenses against the state. Those convicted included Boniface Twagirimana, the party’s deputy leader, who “disappeared” from his prison cell in Mpanga, southern Rwanda, in October 2018, and is still missing.

Three others – Théophile Ntirutwa, Venant Abayisenga, and Léonille Gasengayire – were acquitted of all charges and released. After their release, they gave video interviews to local YouTube channels detailing their pretrial detention and describing ill-treatment and torture, including in Kwa Gacinya, an unofficial detention facility in the Gikondo neighborhood of Kigali, and in Mageragere and Nyanza prisons.

Abayisenga was reported missing in June 2020 after he went out to buy phone credit, and is feared forcibly disappeared or dead. Ntirutwa was rearrested following an attack at his shop in Rwamagana District on May 11. On May 18, Ntirutwa and three others at his shop at the time of the attack were charged with offenses including murder, theft, and “spreading false information with intent to create a hostile international opinion against the Rwandan State.” Their trial has yet to begin.

In 2019, three members of the FDU-Inkingi were reported missing or found dead in mysterious circumstances. In addition to Mutuyimana, in September, Syldio Dusabumuremyi, the party’s national coordinator, was stabbed to death. And Eugène Ndereyimana, a party member, was reported missing on July 15, after he failed to arrive for a meeting in Nyagatare, Eastern Province. In March 2016, Illuminée Iragena, a political activist and FDU-Inkingi member, was reported missing, most likely forcibly disappeared in unacknowledged government detention.

“Rwanda’s brutal methods to quash dissent give reason to be greatly concerned for the safety and well-being of anyone arrested,” Mudge said. “Rwanda’s international partners should publicly condemn the crackdown and Rwanda’s abysmal human rights record, and press for the group’s immediate and unconditional release.”

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