Washington, D.C.: On July 14, 2017, Freedom Now and lawyers with the international law firm Dechert LLP, filed a petition to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention on behalf of Tom Byabagamba, Frank Rusagara, and François Kabayiza. Freedom Now hopes to obtain an opinion from the UN Working Group that the Government of Rwanda’s detention of the three former military officers is in violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
“It has been nearly three years since the Rwandan government arrested and detained Mr. Byabagamba, Mr. Rusagara, and Mr. Kabayiza as punishment for their criticism of the country’s leadership. The government’s continued detention of these three men violates their fundamental human rights including their right against arbitrary detention,” said Freedom Now Legal Director Kate Barth. “Freedom Now calls on the Rwandan government to immediately and unconditionally release these three men; we are confident that the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention will come to the same conclusion.”
Tom Byabagamba, is a decorated military officer who served as personal bodyguard of President Kagame from 1990 to 2010. Between 2010 and 2013 he served as head of the Republican Guard, personally charged with leading security for the president. Frank Rusagara lived in Uganda in his youth until he returned to Rwanda in 1994 when he joined the Rwandan Patriotic Front during the conflict that ended the Rwandan genocide. He remained in the military and reached the rank of brigadier general.
Throughout Mr. Rusagara’s decorated career, he 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, Mr. Rusagara was forced to retire from the military along with 600 other officers. He is Mr. Byabagamba’s brother-in-law. François Kabayiza is a retired sergeant who worked most recently as Mr. Rusagara’s driver.
After his retirement, Mr. Rusagara 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. Mr. Byabagamba made similar comments to other military colleagues criticizing the Rwandan government. Prior to being arrested, Mr. Byabagamba 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 Mr. Byabagamba reportedly suggested to a colleague that Rwanda was “not well governed.”
Mr. Rusagara was arrested on August 18, 2014 on charges of “spreading rumors” and “tarnishing the image of the country and government.” Mr.Byabagamba 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 Mr. Rusagara received as gifts during his time abroad and for “undermining the national flag”, which related to an incident in South Sudan in 2013 where Mr. Byabagamba apparently did not salute the Rwandan flag. Mr. Kabayiza was arrested on August 24, 2014 and charged with charges of possession of an illegal firearm and concealing evidence after he removed the pistols from Mr. Rusagara’s home to and delivered them to Mr. Byabagamba.
Mr. Rusagara, Mr. Byabagamba, and Mr. Kabayiza were tried jointly in the Kanombe Military High Court, even though Mr. Rusagara and Mr. Kabayiza were civilians. The trial itself was rife with procedural violations and irregularities. The defendants were only allowed to cross-examine four out of the eleven prosecution witnesses testifying against them.
Additionally, one of the witnesses who testified on behalf of the prosecution had served as judge in one of the defendant’s pre-trial hearings. Moreover, one of the crimes of which Mr. Rusagara and Mr. Byabagamba were convicted required the men to have incited insurrection through public speech; however even the Court conceded that Mr. Rusagara and Mr. Byabagamba’s comments were only made privately, to friends and colleagues.
Mr. Kabayiza alleged that he had been tortured so extensively that his body was partly paralyzed. Despite the fact that physical signs of torture were apparent—Mr. Kabayiza struggled to walk into the courtroom on his own, displayed bruises, and had lost some of his ability to speak despite being healthy prior to his arrest – authorities never initiated an investigation into these allegations. In fact, the Court accepted Mr. Kabayiza’s testimony, which was forced through torture, and used it to convict the three men.
Mr. Rusagara and Mr. Byabagamba were convicted of all charges on March 31, 2016. Mr. Byabagamba was sentenced to 21 years in prison and was discharged from the military. Mr. Rusagara was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Mr. Kabayiza was found not guilty of illegal possession of firearms, although sentenced to five years in prison for concealing evidence.