/ 10 October 2023

Human rights report details onslaught on Rwandan dissidents

Rwanda Politics Vote
Supporters of incumbent President Paul Kagame carry a large photograph of him during the campaign's closing rally in Kigali, on August 2, 2017. (Marco Longari/AFP)

A Human Rights Watch report released on Tuesday has accused the UN and global community of failing to recognise the severity of the repression of opponents of the regime of Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame.

The 95-page report describes sinister, and at times lethal, attacks on dissidents both in Rwanda and belonging to the Rwandan diaspora, with a focus on abuse perpetrated since 2017 when Kagame secured a third presidential term with a landslide 98.8% electoral victory.

These include using embassies in southern Africa to hound Rwandan refugees and asylum seekers to return home.

“Once the embassy opened, the threats became terrible. They call us,”  the report quotes a Rwandan in Maputo, Mozambique, as saying.

“They call me from private numbers but the person speaks Kinyarwanda. I don’t want to go. I’ve spoken to UNHCR and INAR [Instituto Nacional de Apoioaos Refugiados, the Mozambican National Institute for Assistance to Refugees] but nothing’s done.” 

The report documents more than a dozen cases of killings, kidnappings and attempted kidnappings, enforced disappearances and physical attacks targeting Rwandans living abroad, describing these as the “extraordinary lengths” the Rwandan regime goes to in its attempts to silence dissidents.  

And it alleges that the Rwandan government has sought to use global police co-operation, including Interpol Red Notices, judicial mechanisms and extradition requests to deport critics or dissidents back to Rwanda.  

“The combination of physical violence, surveillance, misuse of law enforcement — both domestic and international —  abuses against relatives in Rwanda, and the reputational damage done through online harassment, points to clear efforts to isolate the individuals socially and diminish their financial and professional prospects in their host country.”

HRW said the cases it investigated illustrated the relentless nature of the attacks on Kagame’s political opponents.

“Multiple tactics are often used simultaneously and, if one fails, others will be used until the person they are targeting is worn down.”

Three main categories of people are targeted outside of Rwanda’s borders, according to the report.

“Individuals who are influential — and often wealthy — figures in the Rwandan refugee community in their host country; political opponents or critics who use the relative safety of exile to criticise the government, including members of opposition and armed groups in exile or people suspected of having ties to these groups; and former members of both the RPF [Rwandan Patriotic Front] and the Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA), now the Rwanda Defence Force (RDF), who have fled Rwanda.”

The report notes five cases where Kigali has sought to have Rwandans arrested and renditioned to Rwanda, particularly in East Africa, “often through apparently unofficial requests made to local law enforcement”. 

In some cases, law enforcement agencies in the host country refused to carry out deportations but failed to ensure adequate protection of the victim. 

“In others, the detention and possible or confirmed rendition amounted to an enforced disappearance.”

HRW added that when persecuting dissidents, Rwandan authorities showed little regard for the independence of the judiciary or the duties of protection of law enforcement in host countries. 

“The Rwandan government misused Interpol Red Notices in two cases and, in one of them, obtained the extradition of a Rwandan asylum seeker living in the US based on genocide accusations which were later overturned in a Rwandan court.”

Said asylum seeker remained in Rwanda, convicted of genocide denial, HRW said.

It stressed that laws that were passed in the aftermath of the genocide to outlaw hate speech, which was used to incite the mass murder of Tutsis, have been subverted to restrict free speech and impose limits on how people may talk not only about events in 1994 but about Rwanda’s invasion two years later of the former Zaire.

“Accusations and charges of genocide ideology have been used routinely to silence prominent critics of  the government,” HRW said. It accused the Kagame regime of harassing relatives of dissidents as another tool of suppression.

“The targeting of relatives is a particularly vicious form of control which may explain why so much of Rwanda’s prolific extraterritorial repression — which goes far beyond high-profile cases of assassinations, assassination attempts and disappearances — has not been visible.”

The result has been an array of rights abuses, including violating the right to life; privacy, freedom of expression and association; physical safety; freedom of movement; freedom from torture and the right to a fair trial.  

In many host nations, the report said, such persecution has been facilitated by the fact that these countries have close ties with Kigali, or donate handsomely to the Kagame regime. This included the UK and the US.

“These and other governments should use their close ties to pressure the Rwandan government to improve its human rights record both domestically and abroad; yet they rarely — if ever — raise human rights concerns publicly in their bilateral or multilateral engagement.”

Given this, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and host nations should properly investigate reports of abuse and give protection to Rwandan asylum seekers, refugees, permanent residents and naturalised citizens at risk of persecution.

This applied in particular to countries in East and Southern Africa, where Rwandans are most prone to state-sponsored attacks and renditions. It should lead to investigation and prosecution of officials who have facilitated extraterritorial abuse.

“The failure of the UN and international community to recognise the severity and scope of the Rwandan government’s human rights violations both domestically and abroad, as well as the ruling party’s growing hostility toward those it perceives as challenging its nearly 30 years in power, has left many Rwandans with nowhere to turn.”

While the mass violence of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda belonged to the past, these recorded violations against political dissidents of the regime raised doubt that the circumstances that warranted affording Rwandans refugee status had ceased to exist.

The cessation clause took effect in 2013. It has led, refugees interviewed by HRW said, to a breakdown in trust between refugee communities and UNHCR.

“The  threat of losing refugee status or of forcible return to Rwanda left tens of thousands of Rwandans living in countries that invoked the clause in a state of uncertainty about their future and immediate safety.”

In response to questions from HRW, the report notes, the UNHRC said in a letter dated August that it had assisted with the return of 65 000 Rwandans between 2012 and 2022, including 63 500 from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. 

Kigali has, it said, used the invocation of the cessation clause to reinforce the flawed assumption that positive developments in Rwanda had made it safe for refugees to return to the country.

The report described the case of Kayumba Nyamwasa, a senior Rwandan military official who fled to South Africa in 2010 and became a vocal critic of Kagame, forming the Rwanda National Congress (RNC), an opposition group in exile.  

Kigali has routinely accused the RNC of supporting and conducting terrorist activities in Rwanda. In January 2011, Nyamwasa and three RNC co-founders, all senior government and army officials, were  tried in absentia by a Rwandan military court and found guilty of endangering state security, sowing division and public instability and forming a criminal enterprise. 

Nyamwasa and Théogène Rudasingwa, the former secretary general of the RPF, were each sentenced to 24 years in prison. Patrick Karegeya, the former head of external intelligence, and Gerald Gahima, the former prosecutor general, were sentenced to 20 years each.

Karegeya was found murdered in a suite in Sandton’s Michelangelo Towers hotel in 2014. The crime remains unsolved after an inquest five years later failed to find any suspects.

In what was taken as a veiled reference to the killing, Kagame days later said those who betrayed Rwanda would inevitably be punished, adding: “It is a matter of time.” He denied that the state had orchestrated Karageya’s death.

The report said Kagame has used his current position as chair-in-office of the Commonwealth to mute discussion of human rights violations and Rwanda’s frequent participation in conflict-resolution missions in Africa to stem criticism of the country’s rights record. 

“Rwandan officials have often cited their own country’s violent past as their motivation for their government’s contribution to peacekeeping operations and willingness to take a proactive role in resolving conflicts on the continent,” the report said. 

Kagame is the only African leader to have spoken out forcefully after the outbreak of the war in the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia, calling for action by the US, UN and by other African states.

“However, Rwanda’s contributions to multilateral operations, under the aegis of the AU [African Union] and the UN, have also been used to stave off criticism of its human rights record, both domestically and abroad.”