The United Nations Committee Against Torture released its Concluding Observations on Rwanda’s compliance with the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT) last December. It raises serious concerns that Rwanda continues to engage in systematic torture, enforced disappearances, intimidation, and prolonged detention of political opponents. While Rwanda has legislation in place to criminalize torture and is a party to additional UN treaties such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), as well as the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (African Charter), international pressure must increase to ensure Rwanda abides by these obligations.
“They put me on my knees, tied a shirt around my arms and said, ‘Now it is too late for you.’ They took out a plastic bag and put it over my head so I could not breathe. As I was running out of air, they said, ‘Do you have something else to say?’ I accepted [everything they told me to accept] because I was going to die. Then they stopped. I signed a document they put in front of me.”This account is just one of over 100 cases recorded by Human Rights Watch during investigations spanning seven years between 2010-2017 of people illegally detained and oftentimes tortured. The actual number is likely much higher, due to the “fear of many former detainees that speaking out may lead to reprisals by authorities.”
Increased scrutiny surrounding Rwanda’s practices at detention centers takes place in the context of the August 2017 Presidential election of incumbent Paul Kagame, and his crackdown on political opponents. The main opposition comes from the Forces Démocratiques Unifiées (FDU)-Inkingi opposition party. Theophile Ntirutwa, a representative of the FDU-Inkingi, was “forcibly disappeared” on September 6, 2017, “held incommunicado” for 17 days, and formally arrested on September 23. In its review of Rwanda’s compliance with the CAT, the Committee Against Torture noted its concern that official police reports make no mention of the days that are spent at military facilities, where these abuses often occur. Ntirutwa revealed publicly in a November 2017 court hearing that he was held handcuffed and blindfolded while “disappeared,” his family completely left in the dark as to his whereabouts.
Diane Rwigara announced in May 2017 that she would run as an independent candidate, which requires 600 signatures of citizen support. Not only were nude photos of her leaked –by persons unknown –just two days after her candidacy was announced, but her supporters and representatives were arrested and threatened with treason charges, or intimidated while they traveled to collect the requisite signatures. Rwigara and family members would eventually be arrested in September 2017 after rumors spread that Rwigara had been “forcibly disappeared.” She was accused of forgery surrounding candidacy signatures, for “illegally forming and leading a political organization,” and for “inciting insurrection or trouble” in Rwanda.These two cases shed light on why the U.N. Subcommittee on Torture Prevention suspended its visit to Rwanda– the third time in 10 years a trip was canceled –after the committee was barred from “accessing some detention sites and made it impossible for them to conduct ‘private and confidential interviews.”
Rwanda’s Penal Code demonstrates how and why the state’s practices at detention centers towards political opponents persist. The Committee Against Torture was especially critical, noting that Article 176 of the Penal Code does not fully align with the definition of torture contained in Article 1 of the CAT. Rwanda’s definition does not include “pain or suffering inflicted at the instigation of, or with the consent or acquiescence of, a public official or by another person acting in an official capacity.”
Rwanda maintains a trend of placing domestic laws above its international obligations and commitments, including laws inhibiting torture victims from successfully bringing claims. Not only are victims required under Rwanda’s Evidence Law to produce proof that confessions were acquired through torture, but judges refuse to consider scars or medical documents, and do not order forensic investigations, contrary to its obligations under the CAT and other international agreements Rwanda is a party to, including the ICCPR and the African Charter. Article 9 of the ICCPR ensures against arbitrary arrest and detention and requires full transparency about the reasons for the arrest, as well as prompt review before a judiciary. These same assurances are embedded within Article 6 of the African Charter. Time will tell if Rwanda positively responds to the Committee Against Torture’s public decry of its noncompliance with its responsibilities under the CAT, and if the international community is prepared to increase pressure should Rwanda continue to skirt its obligations.