Photo: John Williams Ntwali
(Nairobi) – Rwandan authorities should allow an effective, independent, and transparent investigation into the suspicious death of John Williams Ntwali, a leading investigative journalist and editor of the newspaper The Chronicles, Human Rights Watch said Friday. Ntwali was regularly threatened due to his work as a journalist exposing human rights abuses in Rwanda and had expressed concern about his safety to Human Rights Watch and others.
“John Williams Ntwali was a lifeline for many victims of human rights violations and often the only journalist who dared report on issues of political persecution and repression,” said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “There are many reasons to question the theory of a road accident, and a prompt, effective investigation, drawing on international expertise, is essential to determine whether he was murdered.”
News of Ntwali’s death emerged in the evening of January 19, 2023. Police asked Ntwali’s brother to identify his body at Kacyiru Hospital morgue, telling him that Ntwali had died in a road accident the night of January 17 to 18. The police told the New Times website that Ntwali died in a motorbike accident in Kimihurura, Kigali, on January 18 at 2:50 a.m., but to date, have not provided details of the accident such as a police report, its exact location, or information on the others involved. Human Rights Watch is not aware of any reports about an alleged accident coming to light until the evening of January 19.
Ntwali was regularly threatened and attacked in the pro-government media for his investigative reporting. He played a leading role in covering and bringing attention to the plight of Kangondo neighborhood residents, who are in a long-standing dispute with authorities over land evictions. Recently, he also published videos on his YouTube channel about people who had suspiciously “disappeared.” His last video, posted on January 17, was about the reported disappearance of a genocide survivor who had spoken out about being beaten by police officers in 2018.
Ntwali was also one of only a few journalists independently covering high profile, politicized trials of journalists, commentators and opposition members, and posting videos about their conditions in prison. In June 2022, he told Human Rights Watch about the torture wounds he had seen on some of these critics and opponents. He also told Human Rights Watch:
I don’t know what’s going to happen to me after CHOGM [the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting which took place in Kigali in June 2022]. I’m told that after CHOGM, they won’t play around with us anymore. I’ve been told five or six times. I receive phone calls from private numbers. Some [intelligence] people have come to my house twice to tell me. NISS [National Intelligence and Security Services] has told me: ‘If you don’t change your tone, after CHOGM, you’ll see what happens to you.’
On July 12, he told a friend he had survived a number of “staged accidents” in Kigali. “He was telling me about ordeals and threats he faces for his journalism,” his friend told Human Rights Watch.
Given these circumstances, Rwanda has a legal obligation to ensure a prompt, effective investigation that is capable of determining the circumstances of Ntwali’s death and identifying those responsible, with a view to bringing them to justice. An effective investigation must be independent, impartial, thorough, and transparent, conducted in full compliance with the Revised United Nations Manual on the Effective Prevention and Investigation of Extra-legal, Arbitrary and Summary Executions (The Minnesota Protocol on the Investigation of Potentially Unlawful Death).
Because Rwandan authorities have consistently failed to ensure credible investigations into and accountability for suspicious deaths of political opponents or high-profile critics, such as Kizito Mihigo in February 2020, foreign experts such as the United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions should be involved in the investigation, Human Rights Watch said. All Rwandan authorities should fully support and cooperate with the investigation, and the Commonwealth, which Rwanda currently chairs, should publicly call for such an investigation.
Rwandan authorities have long targeted Ntwali. He was arrested in January 2016, in the lead up to the 2017 elections, and accused of raping a minor. Judicial officials later changed the charge to indecent assault and eventually dropped the case for lack of evidence.
At the time, Ntwali had been investigating several sensitive issues, including the death of Assinapol Rwigara, a businessman and father of would-be independent presidential candidate Diana Rwigara, whose candidacy to the 2017 elections was later rejected. The police said that Assinapol Rwigara died in a car accident in February 2015, but his family contested the authorities’ version of events.
Ntwali had also been arbitrarily arrested several other times and his website was blocked by a government regulator, apparently in retaliation for his reporting that was critical of the government.
“It is an embarrassment for the Commonwealth and a problematic message about its values that the country that presides over it is a place where the suspicious deaths of journalists and activists can be swept under the carpet,” Mudge said. “Rwandan authorities should not only not harm journalists but should be actively protecting them, and Rwanda’s partners should be holding the government to account in full for its obligations under international human rights law.”