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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, Human Rights Watch said on Thursday.
The organization said 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.”