On 16 December 2022, Théophile Ntirutwa, a Rwandan political opponent and former member of Victoire Ingabire’s Dalfa-Umurinzi party was sentenced to 7 years in prison by the High Court, Rwamagana detached chamber, on the grounds that he had spread “false information or harmful propaganda with intent to cause a hostile international opinion against Rwandan Government“, a crime of lèse majesté in Rwanda, punishable by 7 to 10 years’ imprisonment, increased to life imprisonment in wartime. His crime? Denouncing an assassination attempt against him on VOA radio, only minutes after he survived. His three co-accused, including his sister and neighbor, were acquitted and immediately released after nearly three years in custody.
The facts date back to 11 May 2020 between 7pm and 8pm, in the Rwamagana district of Rwanda. A group of people armed with knives and firearms, some of whom were wearing Rwandan police uniforms, went to Theophile Ntirutwa’s grocery shop in search of him. When they arrived, they asked where “Theo” was and another person who also had the shortened name of “Theo” came forward and was immediately savagely stabbed with a knife and struck with a hammer, repeatedly. This was Pastor Théoneste Bapfakurera, who died on the spot from his injuries.
Once the assailants had left, Théophile Ntirutwa, who had in the meantime been hiding behind the counter, immediately alerted journalists and told Voice of America (VoA) radio what had just happened:
“They first forced my neighbor Froduald Hakizimana into the grocery shop. Then they saw Pastor Théoneste and suddenly bayoneted him. I could not recognize the assailants but some were wearing Rwandan police uniforms while others were in civilian clothes. Indeed, when I saw them coming, I immediately ducked behind the counter to hide. They came in and tied the arms behind the backs of those inside. When they saw [Pastor] Theoneste, they thought it was me. They fatally stabbed him. In reality, their target was me, especially since before coming to my house they first went to my sister’s house to ask her where I was. In addition, there was a motorbike that had been following me for a few days.”
Shortly afterwards, the Rwandan police, who had also been alerted, came to the scene and paradoxically took in Théophile Ntirutwa, his sister Francine Mukantwari, his neighbor Frodouard Hakizimana, as well as Jean Bosco Rudasingwa, all the witnesses who were on the spot, still in shock.
Prosecuted as the alleged perpetrator of the attack which he himself survived
Since 11 May 2020, the four victims had been in detention on charges of “criminal association”, ” wilful killing” and “armed robbery” on the iniquitous grounds that they were accomplices of the executioners who murdered Théoneste Bapfakurera.
In addition to these three offences, Théophile Ntirutwa was prosecuted for allegedly spreading “false information or harmful propaganda with intent to cause a hostile international opinion against Rwandan Government“, as well as for ” Causing uprising or unrest among the population“.
His crime according to the Rwandan prosecution? Having declared to Victoire Ingabire and on VOA radio that some of the assailants were police officers and soldiers of the Rwandan army.
After nearly three years of pre-trial detention, the High Court finally rendered its verdict and considered that the charges of “criminal association”, “wilful killing” and “armed robbery” were unfounded and acquitted the four victims on the spot, ordering the release of Francine Mukantwari, Frodouard Hakizimana and Jean Bosco Rudasingwa.
As for Théophile Ntirutwa, the High Court acquitted him on the charge of “ Causing uprising or unrest among the population “. However, the Court sentenced him to 7 years in prison on the grounds that his testimony on VOA violated Article 194 of the Rwandan Penal Code, in that he had stated “without any proof” that the attackers included Rwandan army soldiers and police officers.
This article states that ” Any person who spreads false information or harmful propaganda with intent to cause public disaffection against the Government of Rwanda, or where such information or propaganda is likely or calculated to cause public disaffection or a hostile international environment against the Government of Rwanda commits an offence. ” punishable by 7 to 10 years in prison.
This is not the first time that Théophile Ntirutwa has been the object of serious persecution. In September 2017, after two years of political persecution marked in particular by brief episodes of enforced disappearances, during which he was subjected to various forms of torture both physical and psychological, Théophile Ntirutwa was arrested along with 10 other members of the FDU Inkingi party, including Boniface Twagirimana, the vice president.
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On 23 January 2020, after two years and five months of pre-trial detention, the political opponent was acquitted by the Rwandan courts and immediately released along with five other party members including Venant Abayisenga who had been missing since 6 June 2020.
On 29 January 2020, only a few days after his release, he told Umubavu TV journalist Théoneste Nsengimana (also imprisoned since October 2021) that he was going to continue his political commitment within the DALFA Umurinzi party. “We are going to continue our political commitment because the reasons that pushed us to get involved are still present. As long as the problems facing our country and which pushed us to get involved are there, our work to make our contribution to solve them will continue despite the obstacles,” he said in the interview.
For many years, several other members of Victoire Ingabire’s opposition party have been subjected to serious forms of persecution, including physical elimination. In September 2019, Syldio Dusabumuremyi, the party’s national coordinator, was stabbed to death in circumstances reminiscent of the incident that took the life of Pastor Théoneste Bapfakurera.
Eugène Ndereyimana, also a member of the party, has been missing since 15 July 2019. Anselme Mutuyimana, an aide to Victoire Ingabire, was found dead in March 2019 with strangulation marks. Boniface Twagirimana, the party’s number two, disappeared from his prison cell in southern Rwanda in October 2018, while Jean Damascène HABARUGIRA was brutally murdered in May 2017 and Illuminée Iragena has been missing since 26 March 2016.
No judicial follow-up has ever been given to all these cases.