(Nairobi) – A prominent Rwandan YouTube commentator has accused prison authorities of beating him and other jailed critics, Human Rights Watch said today. In a statement at a court hearing in Kigali on May 30, 2022, Aimable Karasira, held in Nyarugenge prison, also said prison authorities were intercepting and withholding privileged communications from his lawyer.
Ahead of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), scheduled to begin on June 20, 2022, in Rwanda, Commonwealth leaders should urgently call for the government to immediately and unconditionally release all those jailed for exercising their right to freedom of expression. Commonwealth leaders should also press the government to open credible investigations into allegations of torture and fair trial rights violations, and to initiate substantive reforms to tackle abusive provisions in Rwanda’s legal framework.
“Just a few kilometers away from the Kigali Convention Center, where Commonwealth government leaders will be discussing good governance, jailed Rwandan journalists and critics are brutally being reduced to silence,” said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The victims of abuse will be abandoned by the Commonwealth if it fails to speak out about the human rights situation in Rwanda.”
At least 2 journalists, 3 commentators, and 16 opposition activists are currently behind bars in Rwanda. Most have been convicted after politically motivated trials. Others are currently on trial, including Karasira. In some cases, they have been arrested for speaking out about security force abuses – including unlawful and arbitrary detention, torture and extrajudicial killings – or for criticizing the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) and its human rights record. Allegations that the authorities beat or otherwise ill-treat political prisoners are common in Rwanda.
Karasira is a prominent commentator who has spoken on YouTube about losing family members both to Hutu extremists and to the RPF during and after the 1994 genocide. He was arrested in May 2021 and charged with genocide denial and justification, and divisionism. For several months, Rwandan authorities had repeatedly harassed him for posting critical videos on YouTube speaking about his family’s history and the genocide. He spoke out about killings by RPF soldiers in the aftermath of the genocide.
During a hearing on May 30, 2022, Karasira told the court that Nyarugenge prison authorities tortured him, including through sleep deprivation with constant light and loud music, and beatings, to punish him and get him to attend court hearings. Karasira and his lawyer told the court he was being denied medical treatment for his diabetes and mental health issues, and that he was brought to the court by force but was not fit to participate in the proceedings. He also accused prison authorities of providing inadequate and insufficient food, and denying him access to money sent by friends or relatives.
“The prison guards brought me here by force,” he said in court. “I’ve gone for days without sleeping. I don’t know how to explain the torture I have been subjected to. Recently on [May] 26, they wanted us to go on television and say we are not being tortured but some of us refused…. [The prison guards] refused to give me my medication … they beat us to make us come to court…. I have vertigo, I am weak…. They torture us by playing loud music and never turning off the lights. It’s terrible torture, like in the movies.”
Karasira said that the prison authorities were inflicting the same treatment on the YouTube journalist Dieudonné Niyonsenga – alias “Cyuma Hassan” – and Christopher Kayumba, the former editor of The Chronicles newspaper, who was arrested in September 2021, shortly after he established a new political party, the Rwandese Platform for Democracy (RPD).
Human Rights Watch spoke with an independent source present during the proceedings and reviewed the court transcripts. Human Rights Watch also spoke with three sources who have information about the prisoners, including two who have recently seen Karasira and Niyonsenga and who confirmed the allegations. One source who saw Niyonsenga in May said he had fresh wounds on his arms and legs and that he had made similar allegations about his treatment. Human Rights Watch received information on June 9 that Niyonsenga was seriously injured in a violent beating on June 2, but was not able to independently confirm it.
On January 10, at an earlier hearing, Niyonsenga told the court that he was being held in a small dark cell and treated worse than other prisoners, and asked for medical attention and for the court to investigate his conditions. Both requests were ignored.
In a video published on her YouTube channel, Agnès Uwimana Nkusi, a journalist, reported that during her visit to the prison on April 29 to see Karasira, he told her he was not being given sufficient or adequate food, access to medication, or money sent by friends and relatives. When she returned to the prison to visit Niyonsenga on May 6, she said she was subjected to a strip and body cavity search by prison guards and interrogated about her video, but wasn’t able to see him.
Karasira identified prison officials in court who were allegedly responsible for abuse, but judges failed to order a credible and transparent investigation. This facilitates impunity for authorities to continue to commit serious rights violations and risks further pressure on journalists and commentators to stay quiet about the abuse, Human Rights Watch said.
As the Commonwealth meeting grows near, leaders should urgently call for credible and independent investigations into allegations of abuse against critics and journalists. “The prison staff tell us they will kill us after CHOGM,” Karasira said. “I’m not going to hide it from the courts like others have. All I am asking for is a minimum of human rights. Where we are locked up, we cannot breathe.” Other journalists have told Human Rights Watch that they have received anonymous phone calls in which they are told that after CHOGM, they will suffer the consequences for their work.
Both Karasira and Niyonsenga have accused prison authorities of intercepting privileged communications between them and their lawyers. Karasira told the court that prison guards prevented him from accessing documents to prepare for trial. “When I meet with my lawyer, prison agents take pictures of my documents and refuse to give me certain documents saying they are unrelated to my trial,” Karasira told the judge on May 30.
On February 16, Karasira’s lawyer told the court that prison guards listened in on his consultations with his client. Reading correspondence or listening in on consultations between Karasira and his lawyer violates Rwandan and international legal standards, which protect all communications and consultations between lawyers and their clients within their professional relationship as confidential.
Niyonsenga, known as “Cyuma Hassan”, the owner of Ishema TV, and his driver, Fidèle Komezusenge, were arrested in April 2020 after reporting on the impact of the Covid-19 guidelines on vulnerable populations, and were accused of forgery, impersonating journalists, and hindering public works. Both were acquitted on March 12, 2021, after spending almost a year in detention. The prosecution appealed the verdict and Niyonsenga was rearrested on November 11, 2021, after the High Court in Kigali reversed his acquittal.
The appeals court found Niyonsenga guilty of forgery, impersonation, hindering public works, and “humiliation of national authorities and persons in charge of public service.” The last charge, which was added during the appeal, is no longer a criminal offense in Rwanda. It was struck down from the 2018 Penal Code by the Supreme Court in 2019. A second appeal’s verdict maintained his seven-year sentence but overturned his conviction for humiliation of national authorities.
Karasira, a Tutsi and former information communication technology professor at the University of Rwanda, has spoken about losing family members both to Hutu extremists and to the RPF in 1994 on his YouTube channel called Ukuri Mbona (The truth I see, in Kinyarwanda).
Since 2020, Human Rights Watch has monitored trials in which judicial authorities pursued politically motivated prosecutions and perpetuated a culture of intolerance of dissent. Many are held in Nyarugenge prison, Mageragere sector, in Kigali, where allegations of ill treatment and torture regularly emerge.
“Rwanda’s partners should urgently call out the grave human rights violations against journalists, commentators and opposition members,” Mudge said. “In turning their backs on victims, they undermine their own institution and their pledged commitment to human rights.”