Rwanda nearly made history this past June. Its capital was scheduled to host 54 world leaders for a summit of the Commonwealth of Nations before COVID-19 froze the world. This was the first time a country with no historical ties to the United Kingdom was selected to convene the biennial meeting. In the absence of a global pandemic, presidents and prime ministers would have discussed how to strengthen the Commonwealth values of democracy and human rights on a global scale, miles from prisons where Rwandan citizens sat for peacefully criticizing their own government.
In the past several years, Rwanda has imprisoned numerous opposition leaders and government critics to long prison terms. August 18 is the six-year anniversary of the arrest of one such critic – former military officer Frank Rusagara.
Frank, who joined the Rwandan Patriotic Front in 1994, had a decorated career in the military, eventually reaching the rank of brigadier general; he also served as director of the Nyakinama military school, chief justice of the Kanombe Military High Court, and Defense Attaché to the United Kingdom. In 2013, he was forced to retire from the military along with 600 other officers. His brother-in-law, Tom Byabagamba, served as the personal bodyguard of President Kagame from 1990 to 2010. Between 2010 and 2013, Tom served as head of the Republican Guard, personally charged with leading security for the president.
After his retirement, Frank frequented several popular social gathering spots in Kigali. He met with other military colleagues at these venues and over meals he would occasionally make private comments that were critical of the government. He also sent emails to colleagues criticizing the country’s leadership. Tom made similar comments to other military colleagues criticizing the Rwandan government. Prior to being arrested, Frank had a text exchange with another military officer in which he commented on an online article that was critical of the Rwandan government. In this text exchange Tom reportedly suggested to a colleague that Rwanda was “not well governed.”
Frank was arrested on August 18, 2014 on charges of “inciting insurrection among the population”, “illegal possession of a firearm” and “tarnishing the image of the country and government.” Tom was arrested on August 23, 2014 for charges similar to his brother-in-law in addition to charges of “concealing evidence” for allegedly hiding two pistols Frank received as gifts during his time abroad and for “undermining the national flag”, which related to an incident in South Sudan in 2013 where Tom apparently did not salute the Rwandan flag.
Frank and Tom were tried jointly in the Kanombe Military High Court, even though Frank was a civilian at the time. They were convicted of all charges on March 31, 2016. Tom was sentenced to 21 years in prison and was discharged from the military. Frank was sentenced to 20 years in prison. In December 2017, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention issued an opinion that found their detention to be in violation of international law and called for their immediate release. Despite this decision, an appeal court upheld their conviction in December 2019, while reducing their sentences to 15 years each.
Frank and Tom have endured numerous hardships during their six-year imprisonment. Frank’s wife developed cancer during his incarceration and passed away. Rwandan authorities denied requests for the couple to meet for a final time; Frank was never allowed to say goodbye. Both men have also dealt with their own hardships, exacerbated by poor prison conditions.
Earlier this year, Rwandan authorities initiated a new criminal case against Tom, claiming he attempted to break out of prison. These charges were announced only two weeks after Frank an Tom filed a case at the East African Court of Justice.
Rwanda seeks to be a leader not only in East Africa, but in the international community. Its successful bid to host the 2020 Commonwealth Head of Governments Meeting is a sign of the respect its peers carry for the small nation. However, Rwanda cannot assume a greater role in the Commonwealth or other international organizations until it truly espouses the values of these institutions. The immediate release of Frank Rusagara, Tom Byabagamba, and all political prisoners will demonstrate Rwanda’s commitment to human rights and true progress. In the meantime, the Commonwealth should seek an alternative venue for its 2021 Commonwealth Head of Governments Meeting.