Covid-19 restrictions and abuses of civil rights: tycoons in the crosshairs

By The Rwandan Analyst

We were about 100 when I arrived, but every 30 minutes they brought more people,” said a resident who was detained at Umuganda stadium in Gisenyi in early April. “I spent eight hours there; some women had their young children with them, who were crying…. We didn’t get water or food…. Some were kept there until 9 p.m. and had to walk home afterwards.” Human Rights Watch has received credible accounts that people accused of violating the lockdown rules in Kigali have also been detained in stadiums. The issue still covered is that opponents and rich traders who were working in anonymity are unearthed and their detention frightens them and becomes a threat to push them to cooperate.

1.Abuses continuously exacerbated 

Government directives to prevent the spread of Covid-19 do not give security forces carte blanche to ignore rule of law and commit abuses against the population while locking up those trying to expose them,” said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The Rwandan authorities should end these unlawful practices immediately, transparently investigate those responsible, and bring officers involved in violations and who have committed crimes to justice 

Since the measures were announced, the police have tweeted that “failure to abide [by them] is a violation of the law” and warned that those “caught” will be fined or jailed. However, the directives do not provide for such sanctions, and the police offered no other legal basis to justify their asserted authority

The directives, which have been extended until April 30, ban “unnecessary” movements, including for exercise; shut schools and places of worship; and ban travel between cities and districts and close borders, except for cargo and goods as well as returning Rwandans and residents, who are placed in 14-day mandatory quarantine. By April 22, the Health Ministry had confirmed 153 cases of Covid-19 and no deaths from the disease

Since April 8, four bloggers who had reported abuses and one of the bloggers’ drivers have been arrested and detained for allegedly violating the government directives. After years of state interference and intimidation, most print and broadcast media are heavily dominated by pro-government views, but lately more sensitive reporting on social and human rights issues has been posted on online blogs and YouTube channels

In a video posted on Ishema TV’s YouTube channel on April 3, three women from Kangondo II – a poor neighborhood also known as “Bannyahe,” in Remera sector of Kigali, the capital – told journalists that soldiers enforcing the lockdown raped them. One victim said that one night in March, a man in military uniform with a gun came into her house and raped her, while another hung her husband up by his legs from the window and beat him

another said she saw men being beaten while a man in military uniform forced her with the butt of his rifle to enter a neighbor’s house: “He raped me…. But what could I do when he was armed? How could I cry out when they were beating people outside with no intervention from the authorities

Two neighbors Human Rights Watch spoke with corroborated the women’s accounts, adding that more women had been raped but were not willing to share their stories and that the soldiers had also stolen goods in the neighborhood. One survivor, contacted on April 6, told Human Rights Watch that the military had threatened her and told her not to speak with anyone outside the country about what had happened to her

Women and girls are at increased risk of sexual and other gender-based violence during the Covid-19 pandemic. Rwandan authorities should ensure that post-rape medical care as well as psychosocial support – including mental health care – are available for survivors, Human Rights Watch

Rwanda Defense Forces said in a statement on April 4 that an investigation had been opened into the “allegations of criminal misconduct against citizens by [a] few indisciplined (sic) RDF soldiers,” and that five suspects were in detention

however, since then, four bloggers working for Afrimax TV, Ishema TV, and Umubavu TV, which reported on the rapes and the impact of the directives on vulnerable populations, have been arrested in circumstances that appear retaliatory. In recent months, they had also shared testimonies about a long-standing dispute with authorities over land evictions in Bannyahe.

On 8 April, the Rwanda Investigation Bureau (RIB) and police agents arrested Valentin Muhirwa and David Byiringiro, two bloggers with Afrimax TV, in Kangondo II. A witness told Human Rights Watch: “[The journalists] had spoken to the population about their concerns, the evictions, the theft by soldiers, and the rapes. They told them that they didn’t have any food to eat…. On April 8, [the journalists] returned with supplies in a van.” Two residents said the team of six requested permission from the local leader to distribute food and goods, but after 30 minutes, RIB and police agents appeared, accused them of violating the government directives and organizing an unauthorized distribution, confiscated the goods, and arrested them

On 12 april, RIB tweeted confirmation of the arrest of Theoneste Nsengimana, the owner of Umubavu TV, for alleged fraud. RIB accused him of promising 20,000 Rwandan Francs (US$ 21) to people to say they were receiving assistance from abroad “for the purpose of soliciting the story for his own benefit

The Rwanda Media Commission said in a statement on April 13 that none of the detained journalists were arrested in relation to their work and that online bloggers, such as those using YouTube, are not journalists and are “not authorized to interview the population

April 15, Dieudonné Niyonsenga, also known as Cyuma Hassan, the owner of Ishema TV, was arrested with his driver, Fidèle Komezusenge. RIB accused Niyonsenga of violating the lockdown measures and giving Komezusenge an unauthorized press pass

2.Legal analysis

Both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, to which Rwanda is a party, protect free speech, which includes the important work and role of journalists. The United Nations Human Rights Committee, which monitors the covenant, emphasized in its guidance on freedom of expression that journalism is “a function shared by a wide range of actors, including professional full-time reporters and analysts, as well as bloggers and others who engage in forms of self-publication in print, on the Internet or elsewhere.” The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights’ Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa also protects journalists and online media 

a free press should be able to challenge official narratives and share information of public interest, including by investigating abuses by security forces, through any media. Any journalist arrested for doing their job should be immediately released, Human Rights Watch said

March 25, media reported that Rwandan security forces shot dead two residents of Nyanza District. Rwanda National Police said they were shot in self-defense after allegedly attacking an officer and criticized “improper and unprofessional” conduct of journalists for tying the killings to the lockdown

since the lockdown came into force, police and local media have reported scores of arrests of people accused of violating the government’s directives. On April 15, Human Rights Watch wrote to Justice Minister Johnston Busingye to request information about the legal grounds on which these people are being arrested and fined, but he has not responded. To be legal and non-arbitrary, any deprivation of liberty can take place and only take place  on grounds established by the law.

3.Tycoons targeted

Many great trading houses and hotels which belong to tycoons who did not enough cooperate with the regime in terms of contributions to fund RPF or integrating the regime officials in their business are closed and the owners jailed for at least ten days to push them to rethink their place in this country. As illustrations, a dozen of prolific traders operating in Musanze Town which is generally considered as the second city after Kigali were jailed and their hotels and shops closed.

Interacting with one of them, the latter who asked me to not disclose his identity, told me that some agents probably from intelligence service visited them and informed them that the alleged infringement of covid-19 restrictions was a opportune occasion to apprehend them and push them to think of what they can do in terms of contributions as the amounts deposited on their bank accounts and their movable and immovable possessions are already known.

Another operation is the closure of bank accounts of people having huge amounts and allow them to access them when they have prior met the RPF officials who report to them conditions they are expected to fulfill before reopening of their accounts. It goes without saying that it’s just matter of deciding an amount to disburse in favor of RPF if they do not want to adopt the regrettable option of the great tycoon URAYENEZA Gerard who resisted and is undergoing a life jail.

Conclusion 

The covid-19 was a good occasion to Rwandan authorities carry out  the arbitrary detentions and coercive abuses against opponents and rich traders who were not fully cooperating with the regime while their fortunes are known. Reports of killings, rapes, and other serious crimes by security forces during the lockdown should be promptly and transparently investigated and those responsible held to account.

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