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Rwanda accused of broad campaign of repression against dissidents

Rwandan authorities are coordinating a systematic campaign of repression at home and abroad against political activists, suspected dissidents and their family members, according to a Human Rights Watch report, raising questions about plans by the UK government to send asylum seekers there.

The US-based rights group details an alleged campaign of extraterritorial killings, kidnappings and intimidation, as well as arbitrary arrests and enforced disappearances on Rwandan soil.

The 115-page report, which covers the years since 2017, also accuses the government in Kigali of routinely abusing global judicial and police mechanisms, including the Interpol system, in its determination to return perceived enemies to Rwanda.

Published in the week that the UK supreme court hears the home secretary’s appeal against a June court ruling deeming it unlawful to send asylum seekers to Rwanda, the report represents a challenge to Suella Braverman’s claim that Rwanda is a safe destination and reliable partner.

Victoire Ingabire, a Rwandan opposition leader who spent eight years in prison on terrorism charges, said: “This report exposes the reality of the Rwandan regime. The principles of civilian government have been completely ignored in Rwanda.”

HRW calls on the UK to rescind the migration and economic development partnership that Braverman’s predecessor, Priti Patel, signed with Rwanda in 2022, in light of the “real risks” that asylum seekers would face, and to investigate threats to Rwandan residents in Britain and make future assistance to the aid-dependent African state conditional on significant change to its “repressive practices”.

A spokeswoman for the Rwandan government accused HRW of “distorting the reality of Rwanda”. A post on X, formerly known as Twitter, said: “Any balanced assessment of Rwanda’s record in advancing the rights, wellbeing and dignity of Rwandans over the past 29 years would recognise remarkable, transformational progress. Rwanda will not be deterred from this work by bad-faith actors advancing a politicised agenda.”

Rwanda, the scene of a 1994 genocide in which up to 1 million people died, is often hailed as a miracle of development. Paul Kagame, who has been president since 2000 and recently announced his intention to run for a fourth term, is regarded as one of Africa’s most proactive, if hardline, heads of state.

However, the picture that HRW paints is at odds with the former British prime minister Boris Johnson’s description of Rwanda as a place where asylum seekers could “prosper and thrive”.

Drawing on interviews with more than 150 people in the UK, Australia, the US, Canada, Belgium, France and a handful of African states, HRW said it had documented more than a dozen cases of killings, kidnappings, enforced disappearances and physical attacks targeting Rwandans abroad. The lengths to which authorities go in order to silence exiles, who are sometimes tracked using Pegasus spyware and relentlessly harassed and smeared online, are extraordinary, the report says.

It documents the deaths on foreign soil of Rwandan opposition figures such as Seif Bamporiki, a senior member of the Rwanda National Congress who was shot dead in a Cape Town township in 2021, and exiles such as Selemen Masiya, a football coach stabbed in northern Mozambique in 2022 who was merely an outspoken government critic.

Inside Rwanda, HRW details multiple cases of harassment, arbitrary detention, torture and sometimes the disappearance of relatives of suspected dissidents – tactics apparently adopted to persuade exiles to censor themselves or return home. “The targeting of relatives is a particularly vicious form of control,” the report’s authors note.

The report cites the example of Lionel Richie Nishimwe, an advocate of the Rwanda refugee community in Zambia, who caved in to pressure to return to Rwanda. Put up in a hotel, he was pressed to divulge information about fellow refugees, refused, and has since disappeared.

Noël Zihabamwe, a genocide survivor who moved to Australia, is also mentioned. When he refused to be recruited by the Rwandan high commission in Singapore, he was publicly threatened by the high commissioner. Two of his brothers who were based abroad later returned to Rwanda to buy land and were seized by police and tortured, along with a nephew. Both brothers have since disappeared.

The report’s depiction of a politicised judicial system and police force and an intelligence service committed to crushing dissent raises questions about the kind of lives asylum seekers settling there could expect to lead.

Kerry Smith, of Asylum Aid, said: “This report is another strong piece of evidence suggesting the original reasons the Foreign Office decided not to put Rwanda on the list of possible destinations for asylum seekers it drew up for the Home Office still hold good.”

HRW is critical of the UN – in particular its refugee arm, the UNHCR – and foreign governments and law enforcement agencies who it says are aware of Rwanda’s tactics but do little more than alert Rwandan exiles to the dangers they face. In 2011, the Metropolitan police warned three prominent Rwandan citizens in London that their government posed an immediate threat to their lives, but no one was arrested.

“Turning a blind eye to Rwanda’s human rights record has allowed the country to position itself as a valuable partner for peacekeeping missions in Africa and a safe haven for refugees while at the same time exporting its repression globally,” the report says.

The Home Office and the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office received a summary of the report’s findings before publication and were asked for comment. Tariq Ahmad, the minister for the Middle East and Africa, said Britain’s “positive relationship with Rwanda ensures that we uphold our commitment to addressing critical global challenges. We have worked closely together on the partnership to protect vulnerable people seeking safety and opportunity; human rights are a key consideration.”

HRW also wrote to the Rwandan ministry of justice with its findings and received no reply. Rwandan authorities have previously accused government critics and rights groups of making baseless claims against the country.

The readiness of Rwanda’s ruling party to reach beyond its borders to eliminate perceived enemies of the state first made headlines in 1998 when the former interior minister Seth Sendashonga was shot dead in Nairobi.

In 2020, the government organised the high-profile kidnapping of Paul Rusesabagina, a former hotelier turned human rights activist who had moved to the US. The following year Freedom House, a US-based human rights group, listed Rwanda as one of the most prolific perpetrators of what it called “transnational repression”.

Rwanda’s willingness to dispatch peacekeepers around the continent and to take in Europe’s unwanted asylum seekers has muted criticism from western governments who are worried about the spread of jihadism in Africa.

The report’s publication puts the British government in an awkward position. In 2021, British officials were outspoken in their criticism of Rwanda’s human rights failings, pressing the state to conduct independent investigations into “allegations of extrajudicial killings, deaths in custody, enforced disappearances and torture” during the UN’s universal periodic review.

But once Patel signed the asylum deal, British officials largely went silent on Rwanda’s human rights record and its well-documented support for the M23 rebel movement that was destabilising the neighbouring Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Rwanda has received an upfront payment of £140m to cover the costs of integrating asylum seekers. A last-minute intervention by the European court of human rights (ECHR) grounded a first flight scheduled to carry seven asylum seekers to Kigali last June.

Rishi Sunak is said to regard the Rwanda deal as a key plank of his election strategy and has indicated that if the supreme court’s five judges find in the government’s favour, he will ignore any further ECHR injunctions. If the judges find against the government, Braverman is expected to use their ruling as grounds to push for Britain to withdraw from the ECHR.

The supreme court hearing is scheduled to last three days, with a decision expected six to eight weeks later.


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