The ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) party continued to wage a campaign against real and perceived opponents of the government. Critics, including internet bloggers and journalists, were arrested, threatened, and put on trial. Some said they were tortured in detention. The authorities rarely investigated enforced disappearances or suspicious deaths. Arbitrary detention and ill-treatment in unofficial detention facilities were common, especially around high-profile visits or large international events such as the June Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting held in Kigali.
Abusive practices by Rwandan authorities stretched beyond the country’s borders. In August, the United Nations Group of Experts on the Democratic Republic of Congo reported “solid evidence” of Rwandan forces fighting alongside and providing other support to the M23 armed group. Rwandan refugees and members of the diaspora reported being threatened and harassed by Rwandan government agents or their proxies. Human Rights Watch received information about several cases of Rwandan refugees being killed, disappeared, or arrested in suspicious circumstances, including in Mozambique and Uganda.
Political space in Rwanda remains closed. Opposition parties face administrative obstacles to registration and political pressure to toe the government line. Over a dozen political opposition members are in prison. In many cases, they are being prosecuted or have been convicted on spurious grounds.
The trial of 10 people related to “Ingabire Day,” an event scheduled for October 14, 2021, and organized by the unregistered opposition party Dalfa-Umurinzi to discuss, among other things, political repression in Rwanda, continued throughout 2022. At time of writing, eight party members were jailed in Mageragere prison, in Kigali, and one was in hiding. Théoneste Nsengimana, a journalist who was planning to cover the event and is being tried together with the group, is also jailed at the same prison.
The prosecution is basing its accusations on the group’s decision to acquire Blueprint for Revolution, a book written by Srdja Popovic, the Serbian activist, and to follow a training organized by the author’s organization, Canvas—the Center for Applied Non-Violent Actions and Strategies, established to advocate for nonviolent resistance in promoting human rights and democracy. Both the book and the training focus on peaceful strategies to resist authoritarianism, such as nonviolent protest, noncooperation, boycott, and mobilization.
The prosecution argued that discussions on distributing tracts denouncing killings, kidnappings, and beatings were an attempt to overthrow the government. The prosecution is seeking life sentences for eight out of the ten.
The trial of Christopher Kayumba, the former editor of The Chronicles newspaper, began in September. He was charged with rape and attempted rape, and the prosecution is seeking a 10-year sentence. He has requested that the trial, which is being held in Mageragere prison, be transferred to an open court. Kayumba was arrested in September 2021. He established a new political party, the Rwandese Platform for Democracy (RPD), in March 2021 and, shortly afterwards, his former houseworker accused him of raping her in 2012. Jean Bosco Nkusi, in charge of recruitment and of mobilization for the RPD, was arrested in March 2021 and was convicted of fraud and of forming a criminal association and handed a 10-year sentence in April.
The September 2021 conviction and 25-year sentence of critic and political opponent Paul Rusesabagina, on murder, membership in a terrorist group, and other charges, after a flawed trial, was upheld on appeal in April. Rusesabagina was forcibly disappeared and unlawfully returned to Rwanda in August 2020.
Freedom of Expression
At time of writing, several journalists and commentators were behind bars in Rwanda. In some cases, they were arrested for speaking out about security force abuses, including unlawful and arbitrary detention, torture and extrajudicial killings, or for criticizing the ruling RPF and its human rights record. Allegations that the authorities beat or otherwise ill-treat political prisoners are common in Rwanda.
The trial of three journalists working for the YouTube channel Iwacu TV concluded on July 15. Damascene Mutuyimana, Shadrack Niyonsenga, and Jean Baptiste Nshimiyimana were arrested in October 2018, and charged with spreading false information with the intention of creating a hostile international opinion of Rwanda, publishing unoriginal statements or pictures, and inciting insurrection, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Prosecutors sought a 22 year and 5 months sentence. On October 5, they were acquitted and released.
On May 30, a detained commentator popular on YouTube, Aimable Karasira, told a judge that he was tortured in detention and denied medical treatment. In a July 7 court appearance, he said he had been punished for talking about how he was treated in detention and beaten again. Karasira is on trial for genocide denial and justification, and divisionism. He has spoken about losing family members both to Hutu extremists and to the RPF during and after the 1994 genocide.
Karasira said that the prison authorities were inflicting the same treatment on the YouTube journalist Dieudonné Niyonsenga—alias “Cyuma Hassan” and Christopher Kayumba. Niyonsenga was convicted of forgery, impersonating journalists, and hindering public works and sentenced to seven years in 2021 after reporting on the impact of the Covid-19 guidelines on vulnerable populations.
In September 2021, the prosecution appealed the 15-year sentence handed to Yvonne Idamange, a Tutsi online commentator and genocide survivor who has criticized the Covid-19 lockdown and the government-organized genocide commemorations. The prosecution is seeking a 30-year sentence.
Refugees and Asylum Seekers
In April, the United Kingdom and Rwandan governments announced the signing of a new Asylum Partnership Agreement, under which the UK plans to expel to Rwanda people seeking asylum in the UK through “irregular” routes. Under the agreement, asylum seekers sent to Rwanda would be processed under Rwanda’s asylum system and, if recognized as refugees, granted refugee status there, with Rwanda otherwise handling rejected claims. The plan, which is an abrogation of the UK’s international responsibilities and obligations to asylum seekers and refugees, was challenged in a UK court.
Attacks and threats by Rwandan government agents or their proxies on Rwandan refugees living abroad, including in Uganda, Mozambique, South Africa, and Kenya, continued. The victims have tended to be political opponents or critics of the Rwandan government or of President Paul Kagame. In his September 2022 annual report, the UN Secretary-General highlighted the case of harassment and threats against Noël Zihabamwe, a Rwandan refugee living in Australia, and persons in Rwanda associated with him, following his engagement with the UN Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances.
Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
Rwanda is one of a few countries in East Africa that does not criminalize consensual same-sex relations, and the government’s policies are generally seen as progressive. However, in practice, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people have faced stigma as a result of their sexual orientation and gender identity. Human Rights Watch received information that Rwanda rejected asylum claims from individuals persecuted for their sexual orientation or gender identity in their home country.
Almost three decades after the 1994 genocide, a significant number of people responsible for the genocide, including former high-level government officials and other key figures, have been brought to justice.
On September 29, the trial of Félicien Kabuga, one of the alleged masterminds of the genocide, began in The Hague at the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals. Kabuga was first indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in 1997 and arrested in France in May 2020.
In recent years, the Rwandan government has requested or signed extradition treaties with dozens of countries in an attempt to have remaining genocide suspects returned for trial in Rwanda, although there are persistent concerns about failure to uphold fair trial standards in domestic atrocity trials. In April, Swedish authorities extradited to Kigali Jean Paul Micomyiza, whom they arrested in November 2020 following an indictment by Rwandan prosecution.
Key International Actors
Despite concerns about human rights violations related to the meeting, including the arbitrary detention and ill-treatment of poor and marginalized people to “clear up” the streets of Kigali, the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting went ahead in June. Journalists reported being blocked from entering the country and prevented from working independently. During the meeting, schools were shut down and prison visits suspended—ostensibly for a “hygiene activities” and an awareness campaign.
Senator Robert Menendez, chairman of the United States Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said on July 20 that he would place a hold on US security assistance to Rwanda in Congress over concerns about its human rights record and its role in the conflict in Congo. In a letter to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Menendez asked for a comprehensive review of US policy toward Rwanda.
Blinken traveled to Rwanda in August to raise the case of Rusesabagina, who was living in the US when he travelled from the US to Dubai, United Arab Emirates, where he was forcibly disappeared. He also raised concerns about Rwanda’s support for the M23 rebellion in eastern Congo.