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Photo of a Rwandan police badge via Flickr user Graham Holliday, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

According to The Telegraph, Rwanda is known for its immaculately clean streets. However, clean streets come at a high price for the country’s poorest and most vulnerable. A Human Rights Watch (HRW) report from April 2015 revealed the practices Rwandan police use to keeps the nation’s capital, Kigali, clean. The report detailed the forced removal of the homeless, sex workers, and other members of society’s “undesirable” populations and their detainment at the Gikondo Transit Center, alternately known as the Gikondo Rehabilitation Center. Rwanda’s Justice Minister explained that the government founded the center to provide emergency assistance to the nation’s poor as an alternative to incarceration. However, HRW researchers who interviewed fifty-seven of the Center’s former residents found that the Center does anything but “rehabilitate.” HRW explained that the police held all of the former detainees interviewed at the Center without charging them with any legally recognizable crimes. Detainees held there also described horrific conditions within the Center.

The conditions and treatment of the detainees at Gikondo may violate both Rwandan and international law. Article 2 of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, which Rwanda ratified in 1983, prohibits discrimination based on social origin, fortune, and status and guarantees all citizens equal protection under the law. Articles 5 and 6 guarantee freedom from degrading treatment and arbitrary arrest and detention, while Article 7 protects the right to due process, stating that a person cannot face punishment for something not legally recognized as a crime. Article 15 of the Rwandan Constitution also recognizes the right to bodily integrity and freedom from physical abuse and degrading treatment. Article 18 guarantees further due process, requiring police officers to inform arrested persons of the charges against them and to provide them a chance to defend themselves against those charges.

Before many detainees even reach the Center, arresting officers may have already violated their rights against discrimination based on the detainees’ social and economic status. Police arrest many detainees for behaviors and characteristics associated with their poverty. The Rwandan Penal Code defines homeless people, beggars, or “vagrants,” as people who do not have homes or regular employment, and who, as a result, “impair public order.” According to the Penal Code’s definition, the detainees’ poverty is criminal, which seems to contradict the Article 2 nondiscrimination guarantee of the African Charter. Former detainees have explained to HRW that police arrested them for prostitution or vagrancy, despite the fact that many of the women were not sex workers. HRW suspects that many women face arrest based on the assumption that they are sex workers.

After the police arrest detainees without charging them with legally recognizable crimes, in possible violation of their right to due process under the Rwandan Constitution and the African Charter, the government places detainees in crowded cells with little space, food, water, or sanitation facilities. The police assign certain inmates as “counselors,” but the government requires the counselors to beat their fellow inmates as a way of “maintaining order.” Some former female detainees stated their counselors beat them when their children defecated on the floor, even though the detainees were allowed use the toilet only twice a day. Similarly, many detainees reported the toilets were filthy and did not have doors, forcing many to relieve themselves on the floor in front of others after guards prohibited them from using the bathroom facilities. Beatings and deprivation of basic necessities may violate detainees’ rights to bodily integrity and freedom from physical punishment and degrading treatment under the African Charter and the Constitution. Lack of food and proper sanitation may violate rights by withholding necessary sustenance for physical wellbeing and subjecting inmates to disease.

In response to the Rwandan government’s denial that Gikondo is anything but a rehabilitation center, HRW stands by its conviction that grave human rights abuses continue to occur there. HRW recommends the government shut the Center down, investigate detainees’ allegations of abuse, stop the police from arbitrarily discriminating against the poor and arresting people who have not committed any crimes, and prosecute the workers committing these abuses.

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