(Nairobi) – Judicial authorities in Rwanda are prosecuting opposition members, journalists, and commentators on the basis of their speech and opinions, Human Rights Watch said today. Throughout 2020 and 2021, Human Rights Watch monitored trials in which judicial authorities pursued politically motivated prosecutions and perpetuated a culture of intolerance of dissent.
Less than two years out from the 2024 presidential election campaign season, the Rwandan government should ensure an end to violations against civil society activists, journalists, and opposition figures. The government should also protect their right to freedom of expression – a precondition to creating a conducive environment for free and fair elections.
“Judicial authorities in Rwanda, lacking the independence to stand up and protect free speech in accordance with international law, have unjustly convicted and jailed people based on their protected speech and opinions,” said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “All those jailed unjustly should be immediately and unconditionally released, and the abusive legal framework that allowed their prosecution should be reviewed and brought in line with international free speech standards.”
Since the publication of a March 2021 report on the arrests of, and threats against, several Rwandans for posts on YouTube, Human Rights Watch has monitored trials and reviewed trial documents and verdicts to examine the evidence and arguments of prosecutorial authorities, and the basis for judges’ rulings.
Researchers also reviewed content published on various channels managed by journalists and commentators on trial and interviewed 11 opposition members and people who post on YouTube. The cases documented are not exhaustive – Human Rights Watch also received information about other similar cases.
On March 3, 2022, Human Rights Watch wrote a letter to Justice Minister Emmanuel Ugirashebuja to share information about the cases it has documented and to request information on the Rwandan authorities’ steps to address violations of the right to freedom of expression. The government has not responded.
Rwanda has very few opposition parties, and human rights organizations and independent media remain weak. Victoire Ingabire, who was the president of the unregistered opposition party FDU-Inkingi before founding Dalfa-Umurinzi in November 2019, was released from prison in 2018. Members of her party have repeatedly been harassed, threatened, and arrested, or have died or disappeared in suspicious circumstances. Since October 2021, at least eight members of her party have been arrested and charged with offenses, including spreading rumors and forming a criminal association, in relation to a book they acquired and an online training session they attended to learn strategies for peaceful dissent.
Journalists using YouTube as a platform have also been targeted for prosecution for not registering with the Rwanda Media Commission (RMC) or for publishing information that contradicts the government’s version of certain events, such as the suspicious death in custody of Kizito Mihigo, a gospel singer and activist, or disappearances of government opponents.
The cases of Dieudonné Niyonsenga – alias Cyuma Hassan – and Théoneste Nsengimana, which Human Rights Watch documented, could further erode journalists’ legal protections and narrow the space for media and online speech. Niyonsenga, a high-profile YouTuber, was found guilty on appeal of forgery, impersonation, hindering public works, and “humiliation of national authorities and persons in charge of public service.” The last charge, which was added during the first appeal, is no longer a criminal offense in Rwanda. The prosecution authority announced it was lodging a “second appeal” to correct the error. Its verdict is expected on March 18. On March 9, Human Rights Watch received reports and confirmed that Ishema TV was no longer available on YouTube. At time of writing, it is unclear whether the channel was removed voluntarily.
Since 1994, speaking about crimes committed by the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) in the aftermath of the genocide, or sometimes even simply commemorating Hutu who were killed during the genocide, is perceived as crossing a red line, with the government presenting it as a threat to Rwandan unity, or the country’s security as a whole.
“When you are pro-government, you don’t have any problems. When you talk about bad things, you become persecuted, you are a genocide denier,” one YouTuber told Human Rights Watch.
Another said, “They take one word, and they create a crime for you…. Here, the problem is talking the truth. If you do, they go after you.”
The Rwandan government may have legitimate grounds to seek to restrict the kind of dangerous, vitriolic speech that led to the deaths of over half a million people in 1994, but current laws and practices go far beyond this purpose – creating fear and effectively stifling opinions, debate, and criticism of the government.
As Rwanda approaches the 30-year mark since the genocide, and the government aims to ramp up efforts to combat genocide ideology, there is a need to ensure that Rwandans can peacefully express legitimate grievances related to the genocide and post-genocide periods, Human Rights Watch said.
Article 38 of the 2015 Constitution protects freedom of expression but limits that protection by permitting ill-defined restrictions based on “public order, good morals, the protection of the youth and children, the right of every citizen to honor and dignity and protection of personal and family privacy.” The government, with the support of the judiciary, has used this clawback clause to impose restrictions on freedom of expression in ways that are incompatible with Rwanda’s regional and international obligations.
As Rwanda prepares to host the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, scheduled to take place in June, the international community should take a stand and press the authorities to stop harassing, immediately release, and drop all charges against opposition members, YouTube commentators and journalists facing abusive prosecutions that violate freedom of expression. The authorities should also open credible, independent, and transparent investigations into suspicious deaths and disappearances of critics, opposition members, civil society actors, and journalists, and prosecute those responsible.
“The evidence provided by the prosecuting authorities, and what judges have chosen to rely on to justify their conclusions, clearly demonstrates that these cases violate African and international human rights law,” Mudge said. “Prosecuting those who challenge the government of incitement to insurrection or of attempting to tarnish the country’s image is an indication of how little dissent is tolerated in Rwanda.”
For details of the recent cases, please see below.
Cases Against the Political Opposition
In October 2021, at least eight members of Victoire Ingabire’s opposition party, Dalfa-Umurinzi, were arrested in the largest crackdown against the party in recent years. Sylvain Sibomana, Alexis Rucubanganya, Hamad Hagenimana, Jean-Claude Ndayishimiye, Alphonse Mutabazi, Marcel Nahimana, and Emmanuel Masengesho were all detained in the days leading up to and following “Ingabire day,” scheduled for October 14.
On that day, Ingabire was planning to speak about political repression in Rwanda, cases of suspicious deaths, killings, disappearances, and abusive prosecutions. Théoneste Nsengimana, a journalist who was planning to cover the event, was arrested on October 13 and is being tried with the group of seven.
Criminal charges of “spreading false information or harmful propaganda with intent to cause a hostile international opinion against Rwandan government” and “formation of or joining a criminal association” were brought against Sibomana, Rucubanganya, Hagenimana, Ndayishimiye, Mutabazi, Nahimana, and Masengesho. On November 9, during a pretrial hearing, the Kicukiro court said it is also considering evidence to support other, undetermined charges against them. The prosecution contended that the defendants were also responsible for inciting insurrection.
Claudine Uwimana, a party member who was arrested on December 14 in Rutsiro, is being tried separately. She is charged with spreading false information, publishing rumors, forming a criminal association, and inciting insurrection, and has been denied bail.
The arrests send a clear message to those who may wish to mobilize, organize, or campaign on a political platform in the lead-up to the elections that efforts to peacefully change the power structures in place can be considered a criminal offense, Human Rights Watch said.
In both cases, the prosecution based its accusations on the group’s decision to acquire “Blueprint for Revolution,” a book written by Srdja Popovic, and to follow a training organized by the author’s organization, Canvas – the Center for Applied Non-Violent Actions and Strategies. Both the book and the training focus on peaceful strategies to resist authoritarianism, such as nonviolent protest, noncooperation, boycott, and mobilization. The prosecution used as evidence the contents of the book and training, the use of Jitsi – an encrypted online communication platform – and the use of pseudonyms during the training.
The prosecution also accused the group of planning activities such as mobilizing, among others, street vendors and others who are routinely rounded up and subjected to abuse, and a commemoration of political activists and critics who have died, disappeared, or been jailed, on “Ingabire Day,” based on the strategies proposed during the training.
Social protest and mobilization offer people the opportunity to peacefully communicate legitimate complaints and grievances. Governments have a responsibility to create a safe and enabling environment for individuals and groups to exercise their rights to freedom of peaceful assembly, of expression, and of association.
Journalists Under Threat
Dieudonné Niyonsenga, also known as “Cyuma Hassan,” runs Ishema TV, a popular YouTube channel on which he has published his sensitive and critical reports. Ishema TV has millions of views, and Niyonsenga is one of the most popular YouTube contributors in Rwanda.
In April 2020, police arrested Niyonsenga and his driver, Fidèle Komezusenge, as they were reporting on the impact of the Covid-19 guidelines on vulnerable populations in a poor neighborhood of Kigali. Niyonsenga and Komezusenge were accused of forgery, impersonating journalists, and hindering public works for being outside during lockdown without a valid RMC-issued press card. Both spent almost a year in detention, but then were acquitted on March 12, 2021. After his release, Niyonsenga gave several interviews on YouTube describing his treatment in detention. In one, he said:
At first, I think they accused me of seven offenses. It was a lot. They were forcing me to talk but I refused as long as I didn’t have a lawyer.… They took me to several police stations, I only spent one night in each cell. Finally, my lawyer spoke with them…. [In Nyarugenge prison,] I was imprisoned in a one-meter-by-one-meter cell, filled with water and mosquitos. I was not allowed out to exercise.
After his acquittal and release, Niyonsenga continued to do critical and sensitive reporting, including investigating alleged abuses by the military. The prosecution successfully appealed the verdict and on November 11, 2021, Niyonsenga was arrested again at his home while Komezusenge was acquitted.
The appeals court found Niyonsenga guilty of forgery, impersonation, hindering public works, and “humiliation of national authorities and persons in charge of public service.” The last charge, which was added during the appeal, is no longer a criminal offense in Rwanda. It was struck down from the 2018 Penal Code by the Supreme Court in 2019. The prosecution authority of Rwanda tweeted on November 16 that “Prosecution has lodged a 2nd appeal in the case against Niyonsenga Dieudonné alias Cyuma Hassan. The grounds for appeal is to correct an error convicting Cyuma for the crime of humiliating public service officials, a crime that was repealed in 2019.”
That Niyonsenga was convicted of a crime that no longer exists in the Penal Code – the humiliation of national authorities – violates his right to a fair trial by a competent and impartial court. International law requires an effective remedy for anyone whose fair trial rights are violated.
During the first appeal’s hearings, the prosecution argued that Niyonsenga had practiced journalism and presented an Ishema TV card stating he was a journalist without being registered with the so-called self-regulatory RMC. The court found that although Rwanda’s media law allows any individual to obtain and impart information online, the fact that Niyonsenga presented himself as a journalist, without accreditation from the RMC, was misleading the public and a crime.
The prosecution argued that even though Niyonsenga, who studied journalism and worked for other registered media before establishing Ishema TV, applied to RMC for accreditation on April 4, 2021, and paid the 20,000 Rwandan Francs fee (US$20), journalism was comparable to medical and legal practice in that it required “necessary” authorization and qualifications to practice. It contended that the fact that Niyonsenga practiced journalism before having registered was grounds to convict him.
Requirements for journalists to register are rarely, if ever justifiable, and in a context of repression like Rwanda, they are used politically to curtail speech, Human Rights Watch said. Under international law, everyone has a right to obtain information and express oneself online. In its General Comment 34 on the right to freedom of expression, the UN reaffirmed that licensing requirements or other efforts to penalize media “solely for being critical of the government or the political social system espoused by the government can never be considered to be a necessary restriction of freedom of expression.”
The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights’ 2019 Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa obligates governments to guarantee the right to establish various forms of independent media, including online media, and states that “Any registration system for media shall be for administrative purposes only, and shall not impose excessive fees or other restrictions on the media.”
Théoneste Nsengimana, who runs Umubavu TV, was first arrested in April 2020 and held in pretrial detention on accusations of fraud. On April 12, 2020, the Rwandan Investigation Bureau (RIB) tweeted confirmation of Nsengimana’s arrest for alleged fraud. RIB accused him of promising 20,000 Rwandan Francs ($20) to people to say they were receiving assistance from abroad “for the purpose of soliciting the story for his own benefit.”
A Kicukiro court ordered Nsengimana’s release from pretrial detention in May 2020 due to the prosecution’s lack of evidence against him, and the charges were eventually dropped. Since his release, Nsengimana’s YouTube channel has hosted sensitive and critical discussions on current affairs, including with a YouTube commentator, Aimable Karasira, who is now also in prison.
Nsengimana was arrested again on October 13, 2021, as part of a broader crackdown against Ingabire’s opposition party Dalfa-Umurinzi after his channel announced its intention to cover the “Ingabire Day” event.
The prosecution contends that Nsengimana used his YouTube channel to broadcast false information, including a video by activist Mireille Kagabo. The video was shared in the lead-up to “Ingabire day,” in which she called on people to commemorate “heroes” and “political prisoners.” She listed names and cases, including the suspicious death of Kizito Mihigo, the activist and gospel singer, in February 2020, the suspicious disappearance of Cassien Ntamuhanga, a journalist who was forcibly disappeared after being detained in Mozambique in May 2021, and the enforced disappearance and flawed trial of Paul Rusesabagina, a prominent government critic who was convicted of terrorism-related charges. Nsengimana has been charged with “spreading false information or harmful propaganda with intent to cause a hostile international opinion against the Rwandan government.”
The case is most likely designed to send a message not to question the government’s version of events in cases of suspicious deaths, enforced disappearances, and prosecutions of critics and dissidents, Human Rights Watch said.
Dangers of Sensitive Commentary
Government officials have threatened, intimidated, and brought abusive prosecutions against several commentators using YouTube as a platform to self-publish commentary or artistic content. Innocent Bahati, a popular poet who published his work focusing on social and human rights issues on YouTube, remains missing over a year after he disappeared in suspicious circumstances on February 7, 2021. Recently, and after public pressure on the government to disclose his whereabouts increased, the RIB spokesperson told the media that Bahati had crossed into Uganda and that he had been working with “anti-Rwanda” elements, without providing any supporting evidence.
Aimable Karasira, a Tutsi and former information communication technology professor at the University of Rwanda, has spoken about losing family members both to Hutu extremists and to the RPF in 1994 on his YouTube channel called “Ukuri Mbona” (“the truth I see” in Kinyarwanda).
In July 2020, Edouard Bamporiki, culture and youth minister, attacked Karasira on social media and said he should not be allowed to teach. Karasira was dismissed from the University of Rwanda on August 14, 2020, for “the expression of attitudes and opinions through controversial statements” and “spreading information intended for inciting people to dislike or dishonor your institution and public institutions in general.” Karasira later said in a YouTube video that he was summoned to the RIB office on December 8, 2020, where he was told to stop talking about the genocide.
On May 31, 2021, the RIB announced the arrest of Karasira for offenses under Rwanda’s genocide ideology law. His trial is ongoing.
During Karasira’s July 27, 2021, pretrial hearing, the prosecution cited one of his interviews to support the charges of genocide denial and justification, and divisionism. The prosecution cited excerpts from an interview with Agnès Nkusi Uwimana, a journalist who runs a YouTube channel, on May 23, 2021.
The prosecution contended that Karasira’s statement that the downing of then-president Juvénal Habyarimana’s plane in April 1994 “became the trigger point for the genocide,” constitutes genocide denial. His comments regarding the arrest of former prominent businessman under Habyarimana and one of the alleged masterminds of the Rwandan genocide, Félicien Kabuga, claiming that he was “in court because he did not give money to the RPF like other businessmen, [and] saying that it’s because of the machetes he provided [during the genocide] is not true because every household had a machete” were presented as minimizing the genocide.
In addition, the prosecution is arguing that his claim that the RPF had attacked Rwanda prior to the genocide is justification for the genocide and that saying “Rwanda was not liberated (by the RPF) … we [the survivors] became their sacrifice” to justify their rule constitutes divisionism.
On May 30, the day before his arrest, Karasira published another video on his YouTube channel in which he gave details of his family’s history, contending that his mother may have been killed in 1994 by the RPF because she witnessed their crimes. After the genocide, he said, he was prevented from receiving the benefits afforded to genocide survivors because of his family’s history.
Rwandan laws on genocide ideology, which may have been intended to prevent and punish hate speech of the kind that led to the 1994 genocide, have restricted free speech and imposed strict limits on how people can talk about the genocide and other events of 1994. This case illustrates the extent to which these broad laws can be manipulated to silence those who wish to talk about the RPF’s crimes in the aftermath of the genocide or challenge the official narrative around the genocide – even survivors themselves.
Yvonne Idamange, a Tutsi online commentator who has criticized the Covid-19 lockdown and the government-organized genocide commemorations, was arrested on February 15, 2021, after posting a video in which she falsely claimed that President Kagame was dead, and called for the army to serve the people or face the wrath of God, and for Rwandans to march with their Bibles toward the office of the president.
In her first YouTube video, Idamange criticized the monetization of genocide memorials for tourism, in which “the bodies of our relatives are being sold” and questioned notions of collective guilt and the government’s approach to commemorations.
On September 30, 2021, the High Court Chamber for International Crimes, where Idamange’s trial took place behind closed doors, convicted her of inciting insurrection, minimizing the genocide, desecrating a memorial site, spreading rumors, rebellion against authorities, and issuing a check that bounced. She was sentenced to 15 years in prison and fined 2 million Rwandan Francs ($1,930).
The court convicted Idamange on the basis of statements she made in videos she published on YouTube before her arrest. The court found that her statements that “Covid-19 has become a pretext, worsened for political gains … that state institutions are ghosts and don’t do their work…. That the Rwandan state is a state of crooks, bandits, and thieves … that Rwanda is a country without a shepherd and that Rwandans are in mourning and should march to Urugwiro to ask for the body of Paul Kagame” constitutes inciting insurrection and unrest.
In addition, the court found that Idamange’s statements that “the Rwandan state threatens genocide survivors by killing people, exposing dead bodies, that it’s a government that no longer exists … that the country has no president … the country is governed by a dead body” constitutes publication of rumors. Her criticism of the monetization of memorial sites and accusations that genocide survivors are “ignored” were found to be desecration of a memorial site and genocide minimization.
Many Rwandans have told Human Rights Watch they felt Idamange’s statements went too far, including her false claims that President Paul Kagame was dead and her call for Rwandans to march towards the presidency. However, Idamange’s treatment during her arrest, the severity of the criminal charges brought against her, the opaque nature of her trial, and the disproportionately harsh sentence handed out appear designed to intimidate anyone thinking of expressing critical, sensitive, or controversial views on the genocide.
Rwandan authorities’ efforts to combat genuine genocide denial should not involve criminal penalties for mere speech and should not attempt or aim to stifle legitimate and necessary discussion and debate on historical events, Human Rights Watch said. The criminal law, or any laws that create vaguely defined offenses, should not be used to prevent people challenging official versions of events.