Rwanda is a constitutional republic dominated by a strong presidency. The ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front led a governing coalition that included four smaller parties. In 2017 voters elected President Paul Kagame to a third seven-year term with a reported 99 percent of the vote and a reported 98 percent turnout. One independent candidate and one candidate from an opposition political party participated in the presidential election, but authorities disqualified three other candidates. In the 2018 elections for parliament’s lower house, the Chamber of Deputies, candidates from the Rwandan Patriotic Front coalition and two other parties supporting Rwandan Patriotic Front policies won all except four of the open seats. For the first time, independent parties won seats in the chamber, with the Democratic Green Party of Rwanda and the Social Party Imberakuri winning two seats each. In both the 2017 and 2018 elections, international monitors reported numerous flaws, including irregularities in the vote tabulation process. In September 2019, 12 new senators were elected to the 26-member Senate via indirect elections. Faculty at public and private universities elected two other senators. President Kagame appointed another four senators, and the National Consultative Forum for Political Organizations designated two, in accordance with the constitution. In September the National Consultative Forum for Political Organizations designated two new senators, including a member of the Democratic Green Party of Rwanda.
The Rwanda National Police, under the Ministry of Justice, is responsible for internal security. The Rwanda Defense Force, under the Ministry of Defense, is in charge of providing external security, although the Rwanda Defense Force also works on internal security and intelligence matters alongside the Rwandan National Police. In 2018 the Rwanda Investigation Bureau began carrying out many of the investigative functions formerly performed by the Rwandan National Police, including counterterrorism investigations, investigation of economic and financial crimes, and judicial police functions. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over state security forces. Members of the security forces committed some abuses.
Significant human rights issues included: unlawful or arbitrary killings by the government; forced disappearance by the government; torture by the government; harsh and life-threatening conditions in some detention facilities; arbitrary detention; political prisoners or detainees; politically motivated reprisal against individuals located outside the country; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; serious restrictions on free expression, press, and the internet, including threats of violence against journalists, censorship, and website blocking; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, such as overly restrictive nongovernmental organization laws; and restrictions on political participation.
The government took some steps to prosecute or punish officials who committed abuses, including within the security services, but impunity involving civilian officials and some members of the state security forces was a problem.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
There were reports the government committed arbitrary or unlawful killings. The Rwanda Investigation Bureau (RIB) is responsible for conducting investigations into such killings. Under the Ministry of Justice, the National Public Prosecution Authority (NPPA) is responsible for prosecuting abuse cases involving police, while the Rwanda National Police (RNP) Inspectorate of Services investigates cases of police misconduct.
For example, Kizito Mihigo, a popular gospel singer and a genocide survivor, was found dead in police custody on February 17. Mihigo was arrested on February 13 near the border with Burundi. Authorities charged him with illegally attempting to cross the border, attempting to join terrorist groups, and corruption. Previously, in 2015 a court convicted Mihigo of planning to assassinate the president and conspiracy against the government. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison before being pardoned by the president in 2018. The NPPA found that Mihigo’s death was the result of suicide by hanging, but the autopsy results were not made public and the circumstances of his death remained unclear. Government critics asserted that authorities killed Mihigo and arranged for his death to be declared a suicide; a posthumously published work from Mihigo’s previous time in prison suggested he feared he would be killed. Mihigo told Human Rights Watch shortly before his arrest that he received threats, was asked to provide false testimony against political opponents, and feared for his safety. Many human rights defenders called on the government to conduct an independent investigation, which as of November had not taken place.
There were also reports the government failed to follow through on its obligation to conduct full, timely, and transparent investigations of killings of political opponents such as the March 2019 killing of Anselme Mutuyimana, a member of the unregistered United Democratic Forces-Inkingi (FDU-Inkingi) opposition party. FDU-Inkingi and Human Rights Watch (HRW) alleged government involvement in Mutuyimana’s killing. Although the RIB announced in March 2019 that it was investigating Mutuyimana’s death and had arrested one suspect, the investigation had not progressed since that time.
There were reports that police killed several persons attempting to resist arrest or escape police custody. In March officers killed two individuals in Nyanza District for resisting arrest when apprehended for not complying with COVID-19 lockdown measures. In July officers killed two Burundian refugees in Ngoma District suspected of trafficking illegal drugs from Tanzania. In August the RNP announced officers had killed two suspects attempting to escape from police custody in Gasabo District. In Rusizi District, officers killed an individual suspected of theft when he resisted arrest.
There were several reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities. In June Venant Abayisenga went missing. Abayisenga was a member of DALFA-Umurinzi, an unregistered opposition party under the leadership of government critic Victoire Ingabire. Abayisenga worked as Ingabire’s assistant and was previously imprisoned on charges of terrorism, of which he was acquitted after more than two years in detention. Ingabire stated that she believed government agents kidnapped or killed Abayisenga. The RIB announced it was investigating the disappearance, but as of September 27, it had not disclosed the results of that investigation.
The government failed to complete investigations or take measures to ensure accountability for disappearances that occurred in 2019 and 2018 such as those of Eugene Ndereyimana and Boniface Twagirimana.
There were reports the Rwanda Defense Force’s (RDF) military intelligence personnel were responsible for disappearances, illegal detention, and torture. Some advocates reported that RDF intelligence personnel took suspected political opponents to unofficial detention centers where they were subject to beatings and other cruel and degrading treatment with the purpose of extracting intelligence information.
Domestic organizations cited a lack of independence and capacity for government officials to investigate security sector abuses effectively, including reported enforced disappearances.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
The constitution and law prohibit such practices, but there were numerous reports of abuse of detainees by police, military, and National Intelligence and Security Services officials.
In 2018 the government enacted a law that prescribes 20 to 25 years’ imprisonment for any person convicted of torture. The law mandates that when torture is committed by a public official in the course of his or her duties, the penalty for conviction is life imprisonment.
Prisoners were sometimes subjected to torture. In one case, 25 individuals were arrested and transferred from the Democratic Republic of Congo to the country on the grounds that they were involved in armed groups threatening the country’s security. During their court proceedings, some of these individuals claimed they had been tortured in custody. The court ruled there was no evidence that torture had occurred, but there were no reports the court investigated the allegations.
Human rights advocates continued to report instances of illegally detained individuals tortured in unofficial detention centers. Advocates including HRW claimed that military, police, and intelligence personnel employed torture and other forms of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment to obtain information and forced confessions, which in some cases resulted in criminal convictions. Some defendants in addition alleged in court they had been tortured while in detention to confess to crimes they did not commit, but there were no reports of any judges ordering an investigation into such allegations or dismissing evidence obtained under torture, and there were no reported prosecutions of state security forces personnel for torture.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Conditions at prisons and unofficial detention centers ranged from harsh and life threatening to approaching international standards. The government took steps to make improvements in some prisons, but conditions varied widely among facilities.
Physical Conditions: Physical conditions in prisons operated by the Rwanda Correctional Service (RCS) approached international standards in some respects, although reports of overcrowding and food shortages were common. According to the RCS, the prison population rose from fewer than 52,000 inmates in 2015 to approximately 66,000 during the year, which greatly exacerbated overcrowding. Convicted persons and individuals in pretrial detention in RCS prisons were fed once per day, and family members were allowed to deposit funds so that convicts and detainees could purchase additional food at prison canteens, but human rights advocates reported that lack of food continued to be a problem. Domestic media reported food insecurity among the prison population worsened due to COVID-19 restrictions, which prohibited family members from purchasing and delivering food rations. The government did not keep statistics on deaths in custody beyond deaths of prisoners due to illness (who received medical treatment in custody). Authorities held men and women separately in similar conditions, and authorities generally separated pretrial detainees from convicted prisoners, although there were numerous exceptions due to the large number of detainees awaiting trial. The law does not allow children older than age three to remain with their incarcerated mothers (see also section 6, Persons with Disabilities).
Conditions were generally harsh and life threatening in unofficial detention centers. Reports from previous years indicated individuals detained at such centers suffered from limited access to food, water, and health care.
Conditions were often harsh and life threatening at district transit centers holding street children, street vendors, suspected drug abusers, persons engaged in prostitution, homeless persons, and suspected petty criminals. Overcrowding was common in police stations and district transit centers. Human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported authorities at district transit centers frequently failed to adhere to the requirements of a 2018 ministerial order determining the “mission, organization, and functioning” of transit centers. For example, HRW found detainees were often held in cramped and unsanitary conditions and that the amount of food provided was insufficient, in particular at the Gikondo transit center. HRW also reported that state security forces beat detainees at district transit centers. Transit centers often lacked separate facilities for children. Medical treatment was reportedly irregular, and many detainees suffered ailments such as malaria, rashes, or diarrhea. The government discouraged further detentions in these transit centers due to the difficulties of preventing the spread of COVID-19 under such conditions. In a press interview, the minister of justice and the prosecutor general stated authorities could continue to pursue cases while defendants were on bail.
Conditions at the Iwawa Rehabilitation and Vocational Training Center operated by the National Rehabilitation Service (NRS) were better than those of transit centers. Young men detained at the center participated in educational and vocational programs and had access to ample space for exercise. A small number of medical professionals and social workers provided medical care and counseling to detainees.
The government held four prisoners of the Special Court for Sierra Leone in a purpose-built detention center that the United Nations deemed met international standards for incarceration of prisoners convicted by international criminal tribunals.
Administration: The RCS investigated reported abuses by corrections officers, and the same hierarchical structure existed in police and security forces; there was no independent institution charged with investigating abuses or punishing perpetrators.
Independent Monitoring: The government permitted independent monitoring of prison conditions on a limited basis by diplomats, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and some NGOs. Nevertheless, it restricted access to specific prisoners and delayed consular notification of the arrest of some foreign nationals. The government permitted monitoring of prison conditions and trials of individuals whom the UN International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals (IRMCT) had transferred to the country’s jurisdiction for trials related to the 1994 genocide, per agreement with the IRMCT. Journalists could access prisons with a valid press card but required permission from the RCS commissioner to take photographs or interview prisoners or guards.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
The constitution and law prohibit arbitrary arrest and detention, but state security forces regularly arrested and detained persons arbitrarily and without due process. The law provides for the right of persons to challenge in court the lawfulness of their arrest or detention; however, few tried, and there were no reports of any detainees succeeding in obtaining prompt release or compensation for unlawful detention. Observers credited the RNP with generally strong discipline and effectiveness. The RNP institutionalized community relations training that included appropriate use of force and respect for human rights, although arbitrary arrests and beatings remained problems.
Human rights NGOs previously reported that individuals suspected of having ties to the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, the Rwanda National Congress, or other insurgent groups were detained unlawfully and held incommunicado for long periods in harsh and inhuman conditions.
Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees
The law requires authorities to investigate and obtain a warrant before arresting a suspect. Police may detain suspects for up to 72 hours without an arrest warrant. Prosecutors must submit formal charges within five days of arrest. Police may detain minors a maximum of 15 days in pretrial detention but only for crimes that carry a penalty for conviction of five years’ or more imprisonment. Police and prosecutors often disregarded these provisions and held individuals, sometimes for months and often without charge, particularly in security-related cases. State security forces held some suspects incommunicado or under house arrest. At times police employed nonjudicial punishment when minor criminals confessed and the victims agreed to a police officer’s recommended penalty, such as a week of detention or providing restitution.
The law permits investigative detention if authorities believe public safety is threatened or the accused might flee, and judges interpreted these provisions broadly. A judge must review such a detention every 30 days. By law it may not extend beyond one year; however, the RCS held some suspects at the behest of state prosecutors indefinitely after the first authorization of investigative detention and did not always seek reauthorization every 30 days. The minister of justice announced in a statement to domestic media in March 2019 that he encouraged authorities to comply with legal standards in these areas, and such irregularities reportedly decreased.
After prosecutors formally file a charge, detention may be indefinite unless bail is granted. Bail exists only for crimes for which the maximum sentence if convicted is five years’ imprisonment or less, but authorities may release a suspect pending trial if satisfied the person would not flee or become a threat to public safety and order. Authorities generally allowed family members prompt access to detained relatives, unless the individuals were held on state security charges, or in unofficial or intelligence-related detention facilities. Detainees were generally allowed access to attorneys of their choice, provided that said attorneys were registered with the Rwanda Bar Association (RBA), were members of another international bar association which had a reciprocal agreement with the RBA, or were from a foreign jurisdiction included in a regional integration agreement to which the country was a party. The government at times violated the right to habeas corpus.
Convicted persons sometimes remained in prison after completing their sentences while waiting for an appeal date or due to problems with prison records. The law provides that pretrial detention, illegal detention, and administrative sanctions be fully deducted from sentences imposed, but this was not always followed. The law does not provide for compensation to persons who are acquitted. The law allows judges to impose detention of equivalent duration and fines on state security forces and other government officials who unlawfully detained individuals, but there were no reports that judges exercised this authority.
Arbitrary Arrest: On August 31, the RIB announced it had apprehended Paul Rusesabagina, the internationally known hero of the film Hotel Rwanda and long-time government critic turned leader of the Rwanda Movement for Democratic Change (MRCD) opposition group. On September 14, prosecutors brought terrorism charges against Rusesabagina, most of which were related to a series of National Liberation Forces (FLN–the armed wing of the MRCD) attacks against the country in 2018. As of November Rusesabagina’s trial had not yet officially begun; he remained in pretrial detention while the prosecution prepared the government’s case against him. The exact circumstances of his apprehension remained unclear. Rusesabagina’s family members asserted to press that authorities “kidnapped” Rusesabagina while he was on a business trip to Dubai. On September 6, President Kagame denied Rusesabagina had been kidnapped and implied that Rusesabagina had somehow been lured or tricked into coming to the country of his own volition. In September Rusesabagina stated he intended to travel to Bujumbura, Burundi, via private jet, but he unexpectedly arrived in Kigali instead.
Unregistered opposition political parties reported authorities detained their officials and supporters, including for lengthy periods. For example, 11 FDU-Inkingi leaders spent significant periods in custody after being arrested in 2017 on various charges, including the formation of an irregular armed group. In January seven were convicted and given prison sentences ranging from two to 12 years. Four were acquitted. Attorneys for the defense argued the arrests were politically motivated and unsuccessfully petitioned the court to dismiss the case on grounds that prosecutors employed improper and illegal procedures in authorizing a communications intercept after the fact.
Although there is no requirement for individuals to carry an identification document (ID), police and the District Administration Security Support Organ (DASSO) regularly detained street children, vendors, suspected petty criminals, and beggars without IDs and sometimes charged them with illegal street vending or vagrancy. Authorities released adults who could produce an ID and transported street children to their home districts, to shelters, or for processing into vocational and educational programs. To address persistent reports of abuse of street vendors by DASSO employees, authorities continued to provide training to DASSO personnel. During the year 225 DASSO community security officer trainees participated in a course designed to promote professionalism and discipline. As in previous years, authorities held detainees without charge at district transit centers for weeks or months at a time without proactively screening and identifying trafficking victims before either transferring them to an NRS rehabilitation center without judicial review or forcibly returning them to their home areas. Detainees held at district transit centers or NRS rehabilitation centers could contest their detentions before the centers’ authorities but did not have the right to appear before a judge.
Pretrial Detention: Lengthy pretrial detention was a serious problem, and authorities often detained prisoners for months without arraignment, in large part due to administrative delays caused by case backlogs. The NGO World Prison Brief reported, using 2017 data, that 7.5 percent of prisoners were pretrial detainees. The law permits detention of genocide and terrorism suspects until trial.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
The constitution and law provide for an independent judiciary, and the government generally respected judicial independence. There were no reports of direct government interference in the judiciary, and authorities generally respected court orders. Domestic and international observers noted, however, that outcomes in high-profile genocide, security, and politically sensitive cases appeared predetermined.
The constitution and law provide for the right to a fair and public trial, and an independent judiciary generally enforced this right. The law provides for a presumption of innocence and requires defendants be informed promptly and in detail of the charges in a language they comprehend.
Defendants have the right to a trial without undue delay. Human rights advocates and government officials noted, however, that shortages of judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys and resource limitations within the criminal justice system resulted in delays for many defendants, particularly those awaiting pro bono government-provided legal aid.
By law detainees are allowed access to lawyers, but the expense and scarcity of lawyers limited access to legal representation. Some lawyers were reluctant to work on politically sensitive cases, fearing harassment and threats by government officials, including monitoring of their communications. Rusesabagina’s family claimed the government did not allow him to have the defense team of his choosing during the first two months of his detention. Authorities insisted that Rusesabagina chose his legal team from a list of available local lawyers without compulsion.
Defendants have the right to communicate with an attorney of their choice, although many defendants could not afford private counsel. The law provides for legal representation of minors. The RBA and 36 other member organizations of the Legal Aid Forum provided legal assistance to some indigent defendants but lacked the resources to provide defense counsel to all in need.
The law requires that defendants have adequate time and facilities to prepare their defense, and judges routinely granted requests to extend preparation time. The law provides for a right to free interpretation, although availability of interpreters varied between urban and rural areas. Defendants have the right to be present at trial, confront witnesses against them, and present witnesses and evidence on their own behalf. By law defendants may not be compelled to testify or confess guilt. Judges generally respected the law during trial. The law provides for the right to appeal, and authorities respected this provision, although lack of access to computers necessary to file such appeals impeded some defendants’ ability to exercise that right.
State security forces continued to coerce suspects into confessing guilt in security-related cases. Judges tended to accept confessions obtained through torture despite defendants’ protests and failed to order investigations when defendants alleged torture during their trial. The judiciary sometimes held security-related, terrorism, and high-profile political trials in closed chambers. Some defense attorneys in these cases reported irregularities and complained judges tended to disregard the rights of the accused when hearings were not held publicly.
The RDF routinely tried military offenders, as well as civilians who previously served in the RDF, before military tribunals that handed down penalties of fines, imprisonment, or both for those convicted. Military courts provided defendants with similar rights as civilian courts, including the right of appeal. Defendants often appeared before military tribunals without legal counsel due to the cost of hiring private attorneys and the unwillingness of most attorneys to defend individuals accused of crimes against state security. The law stipulates military courts may try civilian accomplices of soldiers accused of crimes.
In 2012 the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda transferred its remaining genocide cases to the IRMCT. On May 16, French police arrested one of the fugitives subject to an IRMCT indictment, Felicien Kabuga, near Paris. In October French courts confirmed that Kabuga would be transferred to IRMCT custody. On May 22, the IRMCT confirmed that remains discovered in the Republic of Congo were of Augustin Bizimana, another fugitive, and that he had been dead for 20 years. The IRMCT continued to pursue the six remaining genocide fugitives subject to tribunal indictments. Of these cases, five were expected to be transferred to the country’s jurisdiction and observed by the IRMCT if apprehended; the remaining case would be tried by the IRMCT.
Political Prisoners and Detainees
There were numerous reports that local officials and state security forces detained some individuals who disagreed publicly with government decisions or policies. Some opposition leaders and government critics faced indictment under broadly applied charges of genocide incitement, genocide denial, inciting insurrection or rebellion, or attempting to overthrow the government. Political detainees were generally afforded the same protections, including visitation rights, access to lawyers and doctors, and access to family members, as other detainees. The government did not generally give human rights or humanitarian organizations access to specific political prisoners, but it provided access to prisons more generally for some of these organizations. Occasionally authorities held politically sensitive detainees in individual cells. International and domestic human rights groups reported the government held a small number of political prisoners in custody, including Deo Mushayidi and Theoneste Niyitegeka.
Politically Motivated Reprisal against Individuals Located Outside the Country
There were reports the government attempted to pursue political opponents abroad. Rusesabagina’s family and supporters maintained that Rusesabagina did not travel to the country freely or through internationally sanctioned law enforcement channels but rather was brought to the country through illicit government intervention after he boarded a private jet in Dubai that he believed was bound for Bujumbura, Burundi. Although the government initially stated Rusesabagina’s arrival in Kigali was an outcome of international law enforcement cooperation, Emirati authorities stated they were not involved in the case.
In 2019 the government of South Africa issued arrest warrants for two Rwandans accused of murder for the 2014 killing of Rwandan dissident Patrick Karegeya at a hotel in Johannesburg. According to media reports, South Africa’s special investigative unit stated in written testimony that both Karegeya’s killing and the attempted homicide in Pretoria, South Africa, of the country’s former army chief of staff General Kayumba Nyamwasa “were directly linked to the involvement of the Rwandan government.” The government had not yet cooperated with the arrest warrants.
Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies
The judiciary was generally independent and impartial in civil matters. Mechanisms exist for citizens to file lawsuits in civil matters, including for abuses of human rights. The Office of the Ombudsman processed claims of judicial wrongdoing on an administrative basis. Individuals may submit cases to the East African Court of Justice after exhausting domestic appeals.
Reports of expropriation of land for the construction of roads, government buildings, and other infrastructure projects were common, and complainants frequently cited government failure to provide adequate and timely compensation. The National Commission for Human Rights (NCHR) investigated some of these cases and advocated on citizens’ behalf with relevant local and national authorities but was unable to effect restitution in a majority of the cases.
The government forcibly evicted individuals from dwellings across the country (primarily in Kigali) deemed to be located in swamp land or other zones at high risk of flooding or landslides. Some of those who were evicted said the government refused to offer them compensation on the basis that dwellings should never have been constructed in those locations.
f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
Although the constitution and law prohibit such actions, the government continued to monitor homes, movements, telephone calls, email, and personal and institutional communications. Private text messages were sometimes used as evidence in criminal cases. Government informants continued to work within internet and telephone companies, international and local NGOs, religious organizations, media, and other social institutions.
The law requires police to obtain authorization from a state prosecutor prior to entering and searching citizens’ homes. According to human rights organizations, state security forces at times entered homes without obtaining the required authorization.
The law provides legal protection against unauthorized use of personal data by private entities, although officials did not enforce these provisions during the year.
The government blocked some websites, including media outlets, that included content considered contrary to government positions.