Rwanda: Journalist Dieudonné Niyonsenga Exposes Inhumane Detention Conditions

Cyuma Hassan

On January 10, 2024, Rwandan journalist Dieudonné Niyonsenga, also known as Cyuma Hassan Dieudonné, appeared in court for the review of his trial. Previously, he had been sentenced to seven years in prison on appeal, a verdict that Reporters Without Borders criticized as “heavy-handed, arbitrary, and senseless.”

In front of the judge, a frail and emaciated Cyuma Hassan Dieudonné spoke out about the torture he has endured in detention, as reported by the BBC. Struggling to hold back tears in court, he revealed that he has been held in solitary confinement in a damp cell for nearly three years, constantly monitored by military personnel, and subjected to near-daily beatings. He also expressed concerns about losing his sight and hearing due to the severity of the assaults.

The Voice of America reported visible injuries on his face, which were presented to the judge. On the sidelines of the hearing, his father expressed his deep concerns to the Voice of America, fearing for his son’s life: “They are going to kill my son with beatings.”

According to the journalist’s lawyers, under the current conditions, it is impossible for their client to receive a fair trial. The case has been postponed to February 6, 2024.

Cyuma Hassan Dieudonné, a leading journalist in Rwanda with a YouTube channel that had amassed nearly 15 million views, was first arrested on April 15, 2020, for “violating COVID-19 lockdown measures.” His arrest was part of a broader crackdown on journalists who had exposed a series of abuses by the Rwandan authorities during the lockdown.

Less than two weeks before his arrest, Cyuma Hassan Dieudonné had posted on his YouTube channel testimonies from residents of the “Bannyahe” neighborhood, a community that the city of Kigali had been trying to evict for years. In these testimonies, residents recounted beatings and torture, with several women alleging rape by Rwandan soldiers during the lockdown.

Initially, the Rwandan authorities denied these allegations. Marie-Goretti Umutesi, the Kigali police spokesperson, had even called for a crackdown on “those who say such things.” However, following the outcry caused by Cyuma Hassan Dieudonné’s reports, the Rwandan military acknowledged the incidents, attributing them to “a few undisciplined soldiers.” Subsequently, the military announced a public trial of the involved soldiers, which, to date, has not taken place, and the implicated soldiers have since been released.

In this context, Cyuma Hassan Dieudonné was arrested for “violating lockdown measures” and later detained for “forging documents,” “illegally practicing journalism,” and “obstructing public works.”

On March 11, 2021, after nearly a year in pretrial detention, the journalist was acquitted of all charges. The trial judge ruled that none of the accusations against him were substantiated and ordered his immediate release.

The Committee to Protect Journalists commented, “While it’s good news that Dieudonné Niyonsenga and Fidèle Komezusenge (his driver) were acquitted and released in Rwanda, they should never have been arrested, and it’s a grave injustice that the courts upheld baseless charges against them for nearly a year.”

After his release, Cyuma Hassan Dieudonné resumed his work, believing himself safe from further imprisonment despite the prosecution’s appeal of his acquittal.

“Heavy, Arbitrary, and Senseless” Conviction on Appeal

On November 11, 2021, about nine months after his initial acquittal, Cyuma Hassan Dieudonné was found guilty of all the charges he had previously been acquitted of, along with a new accusation of “humiliating state officials,” a charge no longer punishable under Rwandan law since 2019. The Court of Appeal then sentenced him to a seven-year prison term and ordered his immediate arrest.

Reporters Without Borders vehemently objected to this verdict, labeling it as “heavy, arbitrary, and senseless.” The organization urged Rwandan authorities to “stop their persecution of online journalists.” According to them, the official charges against Cyuma were merely a facade for the real reason behind his prosecution: “his investigative reports and the critical stance of his media.”

Since then, Cyuma has been in detention and requested a retrial. He appeared before the Court of Appeal on January 10, 2024, looking weak and thin, with facial injuries, and he denounced the inhumane conditions of his detention.

The case has been postponed to February 6, 2024.