Rwanda’s former spy chief ‘murdered’ in South Africa
The Michelangelo Towers hotel is a favourite haunt of international jet-setters, South African old money and the new black elite. Lulled by a grand piano, guests graze on Norwegian salmon and Mozambican prawns while looking out on a giant statue of Nelson Mandela in Africa‘s wealthiest district.
Come New Year’s Day, denizens of the Johannesburg hotel could scarcely have dreamed of the horror unfolding upstairs in one of its luxurious rooms. Patrick Karegeya, a former spy chief in Rwanda living in exile in South Africa, was murdered. Later the room’s safe revealed a bloodied towel and a rope‚ implying that Karegeya had been strangled.
As police began searching for a motive and culprit, Karegeya’s fellow Rwandan dissidents were in no doubt: they immediately described it as a political assassination carried out on the orders of the country’s president, Paul Kagame. It fitted a pattern, they claimed, of previous killings and disappearances of his opponents in South Africa and elsewhere.
Karegeya, 53, was once a close ally of Kagame and served as Rwanda’s intelligence chief for 10 years before he was arrested and jailed for 18 months for insubordination and desertion. He fled the country after he was stripped of his rank of colonel in 2006. His political associates said he had gone to the Michelangelo hotel on Wednesday to meet a Rwandan man who had posed as a friend of the opposition.
A fellow exile, Gen Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa, Kagame‘s former chief of army staff and a long-time friend of Karegeya, said he was called to the hotel room by Karegeya’s nephew shortly after his body was discovered on a bed, his neck swollen.
“He had been strangled,” he said. “They used a rope from the curtains. There were injuries on his arms. There were signs of a struggle. There may have been more than one attacker in the room and there will be an autopsy to see if drugs were used.”
He added: “The person he was meeting was nowhere to be seen.” He gave the person’s name as Apollo Karirisa.
Nyamwasa, who himself survived two assassination attempts in Johannesburg in 2010, expressed sorrow but not surprise at the death. “It is not new. It is not the first time and it is not the last. Most of President Kagame’s political opposition are in exile or in prison or are dead.
“The whole international community should examine its relationship with Kagame. He is a criminal and people must recognise that and call him to order. Who else would want to kill Patrick? He never had enemies. It is a political killing, an assassination.”
Karegeya and Nyamwasa fought with Kagame in the Ugandan rebel movement that brought Yoweri Museveni to power in 1986. Museveni then allowed them bases and training to form their own Tutsi-led rebel movement. Kagame took power in Rwanda in 1994, ending the genocide in which 800,000 people Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed.
Karegeya and Nyamwasa were among four top ex-army officers who formed an opposition party, the Rwanda National Congress (RNC), in exile six years ago. The four were sentenced in Rwanda in their absence to long prison terms in 2011 for allegedly promoting tribal divisions and threatening state security with grenade attacks in the capital, Kigali. Rwanda issued international arrest warrants for the men.
The defectors – all from Kagame’s Tutsi ethnic group – accuse him of stifling opposition, and killing or jailing critics to stay in power. In 2011, two exiles in London were warned by British police that they faced the threat of assassination by a Rwandan government hitman, and last year a refugee who fled his job in Kagame’s personal bodyguard was abducted in Uganda and forcibly returned to Rwanda. Kagame’s government has vehemently denied such charges.
The RNC, many of whose senior members are also living in exile, described Karegeya’s death as an assassination. “By killing its opponents, the criminal regime in Kigali seeks to intimidate and silence the Rwandan people into submission,” it said.
Carina Tertsakian, senior researcher on Rwanda at Human Rights Watch, said it would be premature to draw any conclusions about Karegeya’s death. But she added: “This is extremely alarming news given that there has been a pattern of attacks, assassinations and attempted assassinations against Rwandans living abroad for a long time now.
“In past cases, similar tactics have been used: victims have been lured to meetings through ‘friends’ that they trust. It happens the same way almost every time.”
South African police have opened a murder investigation. They said Karegeya “was found in the hotel room dead on the bed. Preliminary investigations revealed that his neck was swollen. A towel with blood and a rope were found in the hotel-room safe. There is a possibility that he might have been strangled.”
Vincent Karega, the Rwandan high commissioner to South Africa, said: “I don’t know what happened, why and by whom. Late Karegeya lived in South Africa for more than five years and was now quite disconnected to Rwanda. We don’t know what he was doing for a living, who he was interacting with or why he was sleeping in a hotel while having a house less than 30 minutes away.
“We trust the South African police will come up with findings. As regards the RNC position, they will need to prove it. If they [the RNC] know what happened, why didn’t they prevent it happening rather than watching and making political capital? Police may need their inputs if they are confident with facts.”
Karegeya leaves a wife, Leah, who is in Johannesburg, and three children. A Rwanda analyst, who did not wish to be named, recalled: “[I last saw him in South Africa just over a year ago. He Karegeya] was surprisingly relaxed about his security, wandering around without any escort, guards or anything, driving his own car.
I asked him about this and shouldn’t he be more careful. He laughed that big laugh of his and said: ‘I am already a dead man.'”