Washington D.C.: In response to a petition filed by Freedom Now and Dechert LLC, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention issued an opinion finding the detention of former military officers Tom Byabagamba, Frank Rusagara, and François Kabayiza by the Government of Rwanda to be in violation of international law. The Working Group—an independent panel of five human rights experts from around the world—called for the release of the three men.
“We welcome the Working Group’s opinion,” said Freedom Now Legal Director Kate Barth. “It has been more than three years since the Rwandan government arrested and detained Mr. Byabagamba and Mr. Rusagara as punishment for their criticism of the country’s leadership and Mr. Kabayiza as punishment for his assistance to Mr. Rusagara. The harsh sentence these men received violates their fundamental human rights including their right against arbitrary detention. Freedom Now calls on the Rwandan government to respect the Working Group’s opinion and immediately and unconditionally release Mr. Byabagamba, Mr. Rusagara, and Mr. Kabayiza.”
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, who joined the Rwandan Patriotic Front in 1994 during the conflict that ended the Rwandan genocide, 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, Mr. Rusagara was forced to retire from the military along with 600 other officers. Mr. Rusagara and Mr. Byabagamba are brothers-in-law and Mr. Byabagamba is the brother of David Himbara, a prominent Rwandan dissident in exile. François Kabayiza is a retired sergeant in the Rwandan Defense Force 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 “inciting insurrection among the population”, “illegal possession of a firearm” 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 possession of an illegal firearm and concealing evidence after he removed the pistols from Mr. Rusagara’s home 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, having retired from the military, 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.
In its opinion, the Working Group found that the Government of Rwanda had committed numerous violations of international law in arresting and detaining Mr. Rusagara, Mr. Byabagamba, and Mr. Kabayiza. It determined that Rwanda denied all three men their right to a fair trial and freedom from torture and, in the case of Mr. Rusagara and Mr. Byabagamba, had violated their freedom of expression and freedom from arbitrary interference with their privacy. In addition to affirming the right of the three men to be released, the Working Group stated that they should be compensated and referred the allegations of torture to the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.