Human Rights Watch (HRW) has denounced Théophile Ntirutwa’s conviction by the High Court’s Rwamagana on December 16, 2022, for “providing false information or harmful propaganda with aim to stir a negative worldwide opinion against the Rwandan Government.”
According to Human Rights Watch, the government has a history of abusing the legal system to restrict freedom of expression and association. His conviction as a politician in the Rwandan opposition for allegedly damaging the nation’s reputation is one such instance.
“The conviction of yet another political opponent for allegedly attempting to incite animosity against Rwanda underscores the severe cost of being involved in politics in Rwanda,” claims Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch.
It’s even more amazing considering that Rwanda is the current chair of the Commonwealth, which prides itself on upholding the rule of law and good governance.
Following a violent incident at his store in the Rwamagana District on May 11, 2020, in which a man was fatally stabbed, Ntirutwa was taken into custody. On May 18, Ntirutwa and three other people who were in his shop at the time of the incident were accused of crimes like murder, theft, and, in Ntirutwa’s case, inciting uprising and “spreading false information or harmful propaganda with intent to cause a hostile international opinion against [the] Rwandan Government.” Together with his three co-defendants, Ntirutwa was held in pretrial detention for more than 2.5 years.
On December 16, 2022, Ntirutwa was found not guilty of all accusations except for disseminating false information with the intention of harming Rwanda’s reputation overseas.
Ntirutwa was found guilty based on phone calls he made to the leader of his party, Victoire Ingabire, and a journalist, in which he claimed the incident was a police and military murder attempt on him.
According to Ntirutwa, because of their similar first names, he was mistaken for the man who passed away in the store, Théoneste Bapfakurera. All three of Ntirutwa’s co-accused, Frodouard Hakizimana, Francine Mukantwari, and Jean Bosco Rudasingwa, were found not guilty.
Even if his accusations were untrue, Human Rights Watch claims that his conviction and severe sentence broke the law on human rights.
Sharing incorrect information would not be a good enough justification to make freedom of expression illegal. This section of the penal code is frequently used by the Rwandan government to prosecute critics, members of the opposition, and even refugees who have objected to reductions in food rations.
Rwanda should promptly abolish this clause and update the Penal Code to reflect current regional and global human rights norms.
Several Dalfa-Umurinzi party members, previously of the United Democratic Forces (Forces Démocratiques Unifiées, FDU-Inkingi), have recently reported being imprisoned without charge, beaten, and asked about their affiliation with the party.
Ten defendants are currently on trial in connection with “Ingabire Day,” an occasion set for October 14, 2021 by Dalfa-Umurinzi to examine, among other things, political repression in Rwanda. The tenth suspect, journalist Théoneste Nsengimana, who was scheduled to cover the event, is one of the nine accused who are party members. Nsengimana and eight other party members are incarcerated in Kigali’s Mageragere Prison; one member is missing.
The prosecution is requesting life terms for eight defendants on the grounds that a conversation to disseminate texts condemning murder, kidnapping, and beatings represented a plot to topple the government.
This is Ntirutwa’s second encounter with charges. After being detained and having his whereabouts and detention denied for 17 days following his arrest in September 2017, he was finally moved to a prison.
On January 23, 2020, seven of the ten defendants who were also on trial with him were found guilty of charges related to complicity in creating or joining an irregular armed force and received sentences ranging from seven to ten years in prison. The defendants were all members of Ingabire’s political party.