The conviction of a Rwandan opposition politician for allegedly tarnishing the country’s image is an example of the government’s longstanding misuse of the justice system to stifle freedom of expression and association, Human Rights Watch said Wednesday.
On December 16, 2022, the High Court’s Rwamagana chamber sentenced Théophile Ntirutwa, a member of the unregistered Dalfa-Umurinzi opposition party, to seven years in prison for “spreading false information or harmful propaganda with intent to cause a hostile international opinion against [the] Rwandan Government.” This criminal offense is incompatible with Rwanda’s regional and international human rights obligations, in particular for free speech.
“The conviction of yet another political opponent for allegedly seeking to create hostility against Rwanda demonstrates the high price of getting involved in politics in Rwanda,” said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “It’s all the more astounding because Rwanda currently chairs the Commonwealth, which holds itself out as a champion of rule of law and good governance.”
Ntirutwa was arrested on May 11, 2020, following a violent incident at his shop in Rwamagana District during which a man was stabbed to death. On May 18, Ntirutwa and three others at his shop at the time of the incident were charged with offenses including formation of a criminal association, murder, theft, and, in the case of Ntirutwa, inciting uprising and “spreading false information or harmful propaganda with intent to cause a hostile international opinion against [the] Rwandan Government.” Ntirutwa and his three coaccused spent over two and a half years in pretrial detention.
On December 16, 2022, Ntirutwa was acquitted of all charges except spreading false information with the intent of creating a hostile opinion of Rwanda abroad. Ntirutwa was convicted on the basis of phone calls he made to his party’s leader, Victoire Ingabire, and a journalist, in which he said that the incident was an assassination attempt by armed police and military against him. According to Ntirutwa, the man who died at the shop, Théoneste Bapfakurera, was mistaken for him due to their similar first names. Ntirutwa’s three coaccused Frodouard Hakizimana, Francine Mukantwari, and Jean Bosco Rudasingwa were acquitted.
Even if his allegations were untrue, his conviction and harsh sentence violate human rights law, Human Rights Watch said. Sharing false information would not alone constitute legitimate grounds to criminalize freedom of expression. The Rwandan government routinely uses this penal code provision to prosecute opposition members, critics, and even refugees who have protested cuts in food rations. Rwanda should immediately repeal this provision and revise the Penal Code in line with international and regional human rights standards.
In recent years, several members of the Dalfa-Umurinzi party – formerly known as the United Democratic Forces (Forces Démocratiques Unifiées, FDU-Inkingi) – have reported being detained incommunicado, beaten, and questioned about their party membership.
The trial of 10 people related to “Ingabire Day,” an event scheduled for October 14, 2021, by Dalfa-Umurinzi to discuss, among other things, political repression in Rwanda, is ongoing. Nine defendants are party members, and the tenth is Théoneste Nsengimana, a journalist who was planning to cover the event. Nsengimana and eight of the party members are in Mageragere prison, in Kigali; one is in hiding.
The prosecution contends that a discussion to distribute texts denouncing killings, kidnappings, and beatings was an attempt to overthrow the government, and is seeking life sentences for eight defendants.
This is the second time Ntirutwa has faced charges. He was arrested in September 2017 and forcibly disappeared for 17 days, meaning that his detention and whereabouts were not acknowledged, before being transferred to prison.
He was put on trial alongside ten others, and on January 23, 2020, seven codefendants who were members of Ingabire’s party were convicted of charges including complicity in forming or joining an irregular armed force, and sentenced to between seven and ten years in prison. One was Boniface Twagirimana, the party’s deputy leader, who “disappeared” from his prison cell in Mpanga, southern Rwanda, in October 2018. He was tried and convicted in absentia and his whereabouts are still unknown.
Ntirutwa, and two others – Venant Abayisenga and Léonille Gasengayire – were acquitted and released. They then gave video interviews to local YouTube channels alleging ill-treatment and torture in pretrial detention. Abayisenga was reported missing in June 2020 and his whereabouts are still unknown.
In 2019, three members of the FDU-Inkingi were reported missing or found dead in mysterious circumstances. In March 2016, Illuminée Iragena, another political activist and FDU-Inkingi member, was reported missing, and is believed to be in unacknowledged government detention.
“As the 2024 presidential elections approach, the Rwandan government should immediately release civil society activists, journalists, and opposition figures jailed for exercising their fundamental rights,” Mudge said. “The government should respect and protect their right to freedom of expression: a precondition for an environment conducive for free and fair elections.”