President Paul Kagame's former head of security, Col Tom Byabagamba was Thursday sentenced to 21 years in prison on charges of inciting rebellion against the government, concealing evidence and disrespecting the national flag.
His co-accused, Rtd Brig Gen Frank Rusagara was handed a 20-year jail term after being found guilty of inciting insurrection against the government, spreading rumours with intent to taint the leadership's image and illegal possession of firearms.
Rusagara was also on trial for calling the Rwandan President Kagame a “dictator”, labelling the country as a “banana republic”, as well as spreading through his email “negative” media reports and books which criticised Kigali’s leadership.
The court also found that there was sufficient evidence to show that he sympathised with the Rwanda National Congress, an opposition group in exile comprised of former soldiers and government officials who fell out with the administration.
Byabagamba was found guilty of “refusing to salute” while the national anthem was being recited while on a state mission in Juba, South Sudan, portraying the government as “killers”, as well as sympathising with those opposed to the Rwandan government.
Byabagamba and Rusagara – who were once close confidants of President Kagame, were arrested in August 2014 and charged with these crimes.
Rusagara’s driver Rtd Sgt Francois Kabayiza, a third co-accused, was handed a five-year jail term and a fine of Rwf500,000 for concealing evidence. He had been accused of transporting the guns previously owned by Rusagara to Byabagamba’s residence where they were hidden.
Their lawyers have however denounced the ruling and vowed to appeal at the Supreme Court.
The trial that has dragged on since their arrest in 2014 was heard by a three-judge bench presided by Major Charles Madudu who read out the military court’s verdict against the trio on Thursday evening, after close to a five-hour session that had started at 12pm Rwandan time.
Sighs of disbelief were heard in the court room after the sentencing, which was mostly comprised of relatives of the accused.
They included the wife of Col Byabagamba, Mary Baine, who could not hide her tears in grief as the three men were ushered to a military vehicle that drove them back to the army prison where they have been held since the trial began.
The Human Rights Watch has condemned the ruling and urged Rwandan authorities to “immediately” investigate allegations of torture and witness tampering and bring those responsible to justice.
“The Rwandan authorities have the right to prosecute genuine security offenses, but this case is a clear use of criminal proceedings to silence criticism of government actions or policy,” Africa director at Human Rights Watch, Daniel Bekele said.
Kabayiza had in earlier court hearings said that military personnel had tortured him during his detention leading to health problems that he says he suffers to date.