Washington, D.C.: On Friday, December 27, 2019, the Kigali Court of Appeal upheld the conviction of former military officers Tom Byabagamba and Frank Rusagara. The two men have been wrongfully imprisoned since August 2014 and were serving sentences of 21 years and 20 years, respectively, for their private criticisms of the Rwanda government. The court reduced their sentences to 15 years.
“Tom Byabagamba and Frank Rusagara have been unjustly detained for exercising their right to freedom of expression,” said Freedom Now Executive Director Maran Turner. “The continued persecution of the two men is unconscionable. Their lengthy prison sentences are indicative of the Rwandan government’s intolerance of criticism or dissent. We call on President Kagame to rectify this injustice and release Tom and Frank immediately and unconditionally.”
Rusagara, a retired brigadier general, held several senior positions in the Rwandan Defense Forces, including secretary general of the Defense Ministry and military attaché in the Rwandan High Commission in the United Kingdom, before retiring in October 2013. Byabagamba, a former colonel and head of the presidential guard, is Rusagara’s brother-in-law.
After his retirement, 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. Byabagamba made similar comments to other military colleagues criticizing the Rwandan government. In a text exchange with another military officer, Byabagamba commented on an online article that was critical of the Rwandan government. He reportedly suggested to his colleague that Rwanda was “not well governed.”
On March 31, 2016, the two men were convicted by the Kanombe Military High Court of “inciting insurrection among the population,” and “tarnishing the image of the country and government.” Byabagamba was also convicted of “concealing evidence” and “contempt of the national flag,” and Rusagara was convicted of “illegal possession of a firearm.” The trial was marred by irregularities, including one of the prosecution’s witnesses also serving as a judge in a pre-trial hearing. Another witness later admitted he was forced to give testimony against the two men. Byabagamba and Rusagara were were sentenced to 21 years and 20 years in prison, respectively. François Kabayiza, a co-defendant, was sentenced to five years in prison. He was released in August 2019 at the expiration of his sentence.
Both men have been beset with health issues during their incarceration. Rusagara suffers from an enlarged prostate and arthritis and Byabagama has two artificial discs, after having major surgery on his back. Poor prison conditions have exacerbated their ailments.
The imprisonment of the two former military officers has been widely criticized by the international community. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention issued an opinion in November 2017 finding that Rwanda committed numerous violations of international law by detaining Rusagara and Byabagamba. In November 2019, a group of six British Members of Parliament issued a letter to President Kagame asking him to facilitate the release of the prisoners.