Rwanda illegally detaining, torturing civilians: HRW

Al Jazeera speaks to researcher urging a probe of torture claims by detainees accused of crimes against state security.

human rights watch rwanda prison
Rwanda should investigate allegations of torture and enforced disappearances, the rights group has said [Photo courtesy: Human Rights Watch]

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has released a report detailing unlawful detention and torture in Rwanda.

The 91-page report – We Will Force You to Confess: Torture and Unlawful Military Detention in Rwanda – alleges details widespread and systematic torture by the military and accuses judges of being complicit in the creation of a culture of impunity for the armed forces.

Victims were beaten until they signed confessions, often on fabricated charges, in a series of centres around the country, HRW says, claiming that Rwandan officials use torture whenever they please.

This is not the first time Rwanda has been accused of torture.

In 2012, Sarah Jackson, Amnesty International’s acting deputy Africa director, said that though Rwandan military’s “human rights record abroad is increasingly scrutinised, their unlawful detention and torture of civilians in Rwanda is shrouded in secrecy”.

According to Tuesday’s report, the use of unlawful incarceration and torture is continuing.

Al Jazeera spoke to HRW’s researcher Lewis Mudge, who is based in Nairobi, about some of the details in the report, why torture continues to be used in Rwanda and if justice would be served for the survivors.

Al Jazeera: Your new report shows that Rwanda’s military uses arbitrary arrest, and in many cases torture to force confessions out of suspects. How widespread is this practice in the country?

Lewis Mudge: Human Rights Watch confirmed 104 cases of people who were illegally detained and in many cases tortured or ill-treated in military detention centres in Rwanda during a seven-year period. This information came from speaking with 61 former detainees of this illegal detention and through trial observations.

Some men spoke of having weights tied to their testicles, others of being handcuffed with their hands behind their backs for days on end.


However, these numbers scratch the surface. Detainees told us of many other people they saw in military detention camps. It is difficult to say how widespread this practice is as these issues, torture and illegal detention, are very sensitive in Rwanda. Many of the people we spoke to were threatened with detention or death if they spoke out about what they have suffered. Many people are simply too afraid to talk.

Only an independent investigation by the government of Rwanda could shed light on how deep this problem really is.

Al Jazeera: The report documents heinous methods. Could you elaborate on the types of measures being used on suspects?

Mudge: Beatings, asphyxiations, electric shocks, mock executions … these were just some of the types of torture used to extract confessions or get detainees to accuse others. Some men spoke of having weights tied to their testicles, others of being handcuffed with their hands behind their backs for days on end.

Many former detainees told us that in the end, they agreed to whatever they were told to say – they could not take the pain. There are also the inhuman conditions in which these people were kept. Many were given rations that could barely keep them alive through months of detention.

Al Jazeera: Is there a specific group or set of individuals that the Rwandan military is targeting? Is it also being used to quell political dissent?

Mudge: People who end up in military detention in Rwanda are accused of crimes against state security and terrorism. This is not necessarily being used to quell political dissent, rather, it is being used against those suspected of association with groups hostile to Rwanda such as the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) – an armed group based in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo – and, to a lesser extent, the Rwanda National Congress (RNC), an opposition group in exile. Some of the members of the FDLR took part in the genocide.

Al Jazeera: If the majority of victims or survivors are said to be belonging to the FDLR, is this partly why the issue is shrouded in secrecy?

Mudge: No, the FDLR is openly regarded as an enemy of Rwanda. And the FDLR have carried out, and continue to carry out, killings, rapes, and other serious abuses against civilians in eastern Congo. However, the majority of former detainees were not FLDR, but were suspected of having ties to the FDLR, hence their illegal detention and forced confessions.

Al Jazeera: This is not the first time that the Rwandan government has been accused of torture. Has there been any improvement in the way the country’s deals with suspects seen as threats to the state?

Mudge: No, this is an ongoing problem. Our research is from 2010 to 2016, but we have cases suggesting this continues.

Al Jazeera: And yet, in 2015, Rwanda ratified the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture, allowing visits to detention sites by the protocol’s Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture. But a national mechanism has yet to be set up. Surely, this is not positive.

Mudge: We are told the national mechanism will be set up “soon”. We are also told the mechanism will likely be in the National Commission for Human Rights, a body which has shown a reluctance to investigate sensitive cases of human rights abuses in recent years.

It is imperative that the commission demonstrate independence and courage to investigate these sensitive cases if the national preventive mechanism is to be anything more than a cover for these crimes. The Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture will visit Rwanda next week.

It should visit areas of unlawful detention and torture outlined in the report. The Committee Against Torture, the body established by the Convention Against Torture to monitor compliance by state parties, will review Rwanda’s compliance later in 2017. It should ensure that Rwanda takes torture allegations seriously and carries out credible investigations.

Al Jazeera: How have Rwandan authorities responded to your findings and what are you expecting to happen, moving forward?

Mudge: We have shared research findings on numerous occasions over the past 10 months with the government of Rwanda and asked for meetings in order to further clarify our work. We have also asked for an official response to this report. Unfortunately, we heard nothing back.

The government of Rwanda must confront the systematic use of torture and unlawful detention. The government should immediately cease arbitrary and unlawful detention and torture in military detention centres and ensure that no one is held in unofficial detention centres.

It should then investigate all allegations of torture, enforced disappearances, unlawful and arbitrary detention and arrests and ensure that the perpetrators are brought to justice.

Follow Azad Essa on Twitter: @azadessa

Source: Al Jazeera