Government officials have strongly denied accusations by an international rights group that it engineered disappearances of its citizens.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) alleges deficits in Rwanda’s observance of human rights in a report in which it documents cases of missing persons it says were “disappeared” by the state, particularly in Northern Province and Kigali city.
Many Rwandans are concerned over persons who are not accounted for and the manner in which some arrests have been conducted. Relatives and HRW say some of the “disappeared” were picked up from their homes by plainclothes men and uniformed soldiers in the small hours of the night while others left for private errands never to return.
Although Internal Affairs Minister Musa Fazil Harelimana initially brushed off the allegations, the Rwanda National Police, which falls under his docket, last week confirmed it was holding some 35 persons that its officers arrested in operations against suspected collaborators of anti-government groups.
The police did not however reveal where the suspects were being detained or when they would be produced in court, or why RNP did not inform their families of the arrests.
In the report, which was released mid this month, HRW cites 14 cases of missing persons.
The authorities claimed that those arrested were linked to the Rwanda National Congress (RNC), an exiled opposition group whose leadership is dominated by former senior officials of the ruling Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF), as well as FDLR militants operating from eastern Democratic Republic of Congo and accused of carrying out the 1994 genocide.
HRW said it collected detailed accounts of the 14 people who had been reported missing in Rubavu and Musanze Districts since March as well as in the capital Kigali. It added that, in at least eight of the Rubavu cases, there were indications of involvement of state agents in the disappearances.
The rights body also alleged that some of those who were forcibly disappeared used to visit relatives or conduct business in Congo and that these movements appear to have attracted the suspicion of Rwandan security agencies.
The report states: “On April 16, two village chiefs, Elie Semajeri and Shamusi Umubyeyi, and a traditional doctor, Jean-Bosco Bizimungu, were detained in the Kabuga, Majengo and Ihuriro neighbourhoods of Gisenyi Sector. Local residents said that soldiers, together with the executive secretary of Gisenyi Sector, Honoré Mugisha, detained these people near their homes. Witnesses also cited Mugisha in connection with other disappearances.”
The interior minister however said that it was not the first time HRW was making disparaging statements about Rwanda and that, like elsewhere, people in Rwanda have a right to travel — meaning, if someone is not at home it does not mean that they are missing.
“It is all motivated by bad faith,” Mr Harelimana said of the report and hastened to add: “Besides, if people are in the custody of security agencies for interrogation, it does not mean they are missing.
“The world over, police detain people.”
Meanwhile, FDU-Inkingi, the party of Victoire Ingabire, the jailed opposition politician, has claimed that two of its members are among the people unaccounted for, a development commentators say could worsen the country’s political landscape.
There are fresh concerns that the state may make use of the recent alleged FDLR infiltration to arrest individuals espousing a different political ideology.
‘Government not bothered’
Boniface Twizeyimana, the vice-president of FDU-Inkingi, told Rwanda Today that he had received 30 complaints relating to “enforced disappearances” and two of them related to party supporters Norbert Manirafasha of Rubavu and a Sebahinzi who lived at Muhima in Kigali. He went on to say: “Many people come to us saying their relatives have gone missing.
“We are used to other forms of human rights abuses but not kidnap. We do not have terror cells operating in Rwanda like we hear in other countries.”
“The fact that the state is not bothered makes it a prime suspect in this. We hope these people are produced in court if they have cases to answer.”
Nonetheless, the minister believes FDLR has not made fresh inroads or heightened its activity in the country, saying the force, which draws its leadership from genocide perpetrators, has always been active in its plan to oust the current government.
In 1997-98, war ravaged the Northern Province as rebels made incursions into Rwanda from their bases in eastern DRC, with the attacks only ceasing after the Rwandan military pursued the rebels back into Congo.
‘No missing persons’
Police spokesperson Assistant Commissioner of Police Damas Gatare said there are no missing persons and termed the accusations as false, baseless and not based on evidence.
In a statement, the police maintained that the suspects were arrested in a crackdown on “conspiracy against established government and terror activities.”
Carina Tertsakian, senior researcher at HRW for Africa, told Rwanda Today that even if some of the missing people reappear, while it will obviously be good news for them and their families, that will not be the end of the story.
“The authorities have been holding these people incommunicado for several weeks [in some cases about two months], without their families, or anyone else, having any information about where they are, or even if they are still alive. That is completely illegal, according to Rwandan law,” she notes in an e-mail.