His Excellency President Paul Kagame
Office of the President
Dear President Kagame,
We, the undersigned nongovernmental organizations, urge you to implement the recommendations of the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention and ensure the immediate release of Tom Byabagamba and Frank Rusagara. The two former military officers have spent more than five years in detention. According to their families, the health of both men has suffered gravely during their incarceration.
Mr. Rusagara, a retired brigadier general, was arrested on August 18, 2014. He 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. His brother-in-law, Mr. Byabagamba, a former colonel and head of the presidential guard, was arrested on August 23, 2014.
On March 31, 2016, Mr. Byabagamba and Mr. Rusagara were convicted by the Kanombe Military High Court of “inciting insurrection among the population,” and “tarnishing the image of the country and government.” Their conviction on these charges was based on accusations of sharing critical online articles by email and comments made in social gatherings. Criminalizing the private expression of views is a violation of the right to freedom of expression. Mr. Byabagamba was also convicted of “concealing evidence” and “contempt of the national flag,” and Mr. Rusagara was convicted of “illegal possession of a firearm.” They were sentenced to 21 years and 20 years in prison, respectively.
The trial was marred by irregularities, including one of the prosecution’s witnesses also serving as a judge in a pre-trial hearing for Mr. Byabagamba and Mr. Rusagara. Another witness later admitted he was forced to give testimony against the two men.
In November 2017, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention – an independent panel of five human rights experts from around the world – issued an opinion calling for the release of Mr. Byabagamba and Mr. Rusagara. In its opinion, the Working Group found that the government of Rwanda had committed numerous violations of international law in arresting and detaining the two men. It determined that Rwanda had denied Mr. Byabagamba and Mr. Rusagara their right to a fair trial and violated their freedom of expression and freedom from arbitrary interference with their privacy. Despite this opinion, Mr. Byabagamba and Mr. Rusagara remain detained.
We are deeply troubled by your government’s actions regarding the arrest and conviction of Mr. Byabagamba and Mr. Rusagara. In particular, we are concerned that the two men were targeted for exercising their right to freedom of expression. Additionally, we are distressed that their recently released co-defendant, François Kabayiza, alleged that he suffered torture while in detention, and that these allegations have not been investigated.
Next year, Rwanda will host the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. As a Commonwealth member, Rwanda has made a commitment to respect human rights. The continued persecution of Mr. Byabagamba and Mr. Rusagara is an affront to this commitment.
We respectfully call on you to take immediate steps to release Mr. Byabagamba and Mr. Rusagara. The conditions of their confinement have contributed to a significant decline in the health of the two men. By helping to facilitate their release, your government would demonstrate both compassion and a commitment to abide by international human rights standards.