A PROMINENT RWANDAN YOUTUBE COMMENTATOR has accused prison authorities of beating him and other jailed critics, Human Rights Watch reported on 13 June.

In a statement at a court hearing in Kigali on 30 May, 2022, Aimable Karasira, held in Nyarugenge prison, also said prison authorities were intercepting and withholding privileged communications from his lawyer.

Ahead of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), scheduled to begin in Rwanda on 20 June, 2022, Human Rights Watch says Commonwealth leaders should urgently call for the government to immediately and unconditionally release all those jailed for exercising their right to freedom of expression. Commonwealth leaders should also press the government to open credible investigations into allegations of torture and fair trial rights violations, and to initiate substantive reforms to tackle abusive provisions in Rwanda’s legal framework.

“Just a few kilometres away from the Kigali Convention Centre, where Commonwealth government leaders will be discussing good governance, jailed Rwandan journalists and critics are brutally being reduced to silence”, said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The victims of abuse will be abandoned by the Commonwealth if it fails to speak out about the human rights situation in Rwanda.”

At least two journalists, three commentators, and 16 opposition activists are currently behind bars in Rwanda. Most have been convicted after politically motivated trials. Others are currently on trial, including Karasira. In some cases, they have been arrested for speaking out about security force abuses – including unlawful and arbitrary detention, torture and extrajudicial killings – or for criticising the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) and its human rights record. Allegations that the authorities beat or otherwise ill-treat political prisoners are common in Rwanda.

Karasira is a prominent commentator who has spoken on YouTube about losing family members both to Hutu extremists and to the RPF during and after the 1994 genocide. He was arrested in May 2021 and charged with genocide denial and justification, and divisionism. For several months, Rwandan authorities had repeatedly harassed him for posting critical videos on YouTube speaking about his family’s history and the genocide. He spoke out about killings by RPF soldiers in the aftermath of the genocide.

During a hearing on May 30, 2022, Karasira told the court that Nyarugenge prison authorities tortured him, including through sleep deprivation with constant light and loud music, and beatings, to punish him and get him to attend court hearings. Karasira and his lawyer told the court he was being denied medical treatment for his diabetes and mental health issues, and that he was brought to the court by force but was not fit to participate in the proceedings.

“The prison guards brought me here by force”, he said in court. “I’ve gone for days without sleeping. I don’t know how to explain the torture I have been subjected to. Recently on [May] 26, they wanted us to go on television and say we are not being tortured but some of us refused…. [The prison guards] refused to give me my medication … they beat us to make us come to court…. I have vertigo, I am weak…. They torture us by playing loud music and never turning off the lights.”

Karasira said that the prison authorities were inflicting the same treatment on the YouTube journalist Dieudonné Niyonsenga and Christopher Kayumba, the former editor of The Chronicles newspaper, who was arrested in September 2021, shortly after he established a new political party, the Rwandese Platform for Democracy.

Human Rights Watch has spoken to three sources who have information about the prisoners, including two who have recently seen Karasira and Niyonsenga and who confirmed the allegations. One source who saw Niyonsenga in May said he had fresh wounds on his arms and legs and that he had made similar allegations about his treatment. Human Rights Watch received information on 9 June that Niyonsenga was seriously injured in a violent beating on 2 June, but was not able to independently confirm it.

Agnès Uwimana Nkusi, a journalist, reported that during her visit to the prison on 29 April to see Karasira, he told her he was not being given sufficient or adequate food, access to medication, or money sent by friends and relatives. When she returned to the prison to visit Niyonsenga on 6 May, she said she was subjected to a strip and body cavity search by prison guards and interrogated about her video, but wasn’t able to see him.

Karasira identified prison officials in court who were allegedly responsible for abuse, but judges failed to order a credible and transparent investigation. This facilitates impunity for authorities to continue to commit serious rights violations and risks further pressure on journalists and commentators to stay quiet about the abuse, Human Rights Watch said.

“The prison staff tell us they will kill us after CHOGM,” Karasira said. “I’m not going to hide it from the courts like others have. All I am asking for is a minimum of human rights. Where we are locked up, we cannot breathe.” Other journalists have told Human Rights Watch that they have received anonymous phone calls in which they are told that after CHOGM, they will suffer the consequences for their work.

Karasira, a Tutsi and former information communication technology professor at the University of Rwanda, has spoken about losing family members both to Hutu extremists and to the RPF in 1994 on his YouTube channel called Ukuri Mbona (The truth I see, in Kinyarwanda).

Since 2020, Human Rights Watch has monitored trials in which judicial authorities pursued politically motivated prosecutions and perpetuated a culture of intolerance of dissent. Many are held in Nyarugenge prison in Kigali, where allegations of ill treatment and torture regularly emerge.

“Rwanda’s partners should urgently call out the grave human rights violations against journalists, commentators and opposition members”, Mudge said. “In turning their backs on victims, they undermine their own institution and their pledged commitment to human rights.”

* Source: Human Rights Watch