They came into my cell, took my handcuffs off and covered my eyes. Then they walked me out and into the bush on a path I did not know. 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.
−Former detainee at Kami, January 29, 2014.
I ended up believing I was guilty. At this point, I was being beaten so badly I couldn’t feel anything. It was as if they were beating a tree.
−Former detainee at Mukamira, February 28, 2013
Between 2010 and 2016, scores of people suspected of collaborating with “enemies” of the Rwandan government were detained unlawfully and tortured in military detention centers by Rwandan army soldiers and intelligence officers. Some of these people were held in unknown locations, including incommunicado, for prolonged periods and in inhuman conditions.
These illegal detention methods are designed to extract information from real or suspected members or sympathizers of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR)—an armed group based in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, some of whose members took part in the 1994 genocide in Rwanda—and, to a lesser extent, the Rwanda National Congress (RNC), an opposition group in exile. Rwandan authorities have accused the FDLR of launching attacks on Rwanda from the Democratic Republic of Congo, as recently as 2016, and have accused both the FDLR and the RNC of carrying out grenade attacks in Rwanda between 2008 and 2014.
This report describes systematic patterns of torture, enforced disappearances, illegal and arbitrary detention, unfair trials, and other serious human rights violations in military detention centers in Rwanda, from 2010 to 2016, in clear violation of Rwandan and international law. Human Rights Watch’s findings are based on interviews with more than 230 people, including 61 current and former detainees. Human Rights Watch also observed the trials of seven groups of people and reviewed court statements regarding 21 illegal detention cases and statements given in court by 22 individuals. Human Rights Watch conducted research for this report in Rwanda, Congo, Uganda, Burundi, and Kenya between 2010 and 2017.
Human Rights Watch has confirmed 104 cases of people who were illegally detained and in many cases tortured or ill-treated in military detention centers in Rwanda during this seven-year period. Yet the actual number of cases is likely much higher. Due to the secret nature of torture, enforced disappearances, and illegal and arbitrary detention, and the fear of many former detainees that speaking out may lead to reprisals by authorities, it is extremely difficult to confirm the total number of people unlawfully detained by the military during the period covered by this report.
While most cases documented by Human Rights Watch occurred between 2010 and 2014, Human Rights Watch interviewed five people detained and tortured in military custody in 2016 and heard credible accounts about several other more recent cases, including in early 2017, indicating that these violations continued.
Many of the detainees, including FDLR combatants and civilians, were arrested in Rwanda by military officials, sometimes assisted by police, intelligence, or local government officials. Others were arrested and ill-treated in neighboring Burundi or Congo, some while being processed through the demobilization and repatriation program supported by the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Congo. They were then illegally transferred to Rwanda, where they were subjected to abuse.
Rwanda’s military has routinely unlawfully detained and tortured detainees with beatings, asphyxiations, mock executions and electric shocks.
Most of the detainees were held near the capital, Kigali, or in northwestern Rwanda. Many were held at multiple locations during their detention. In the cases documented by Human Rights Watch, detainees were held at unofficial military detention centers, including at the premises of the Ministry of Defence (known as MINADEF), at Kami military camp, at Mukamira military camp, at a military base known as the “Gendarmerie,” at detention centers in Bigogwe, Mudende, and Tumba, and at private homes used as detention centers. Human Rights Watch is not aware of any Rwandan laws or statutes allowing for the military or other authorities to detain people at these locations.
To force them to confess, or to incriminate others, officials severely tortured or ill-treated most of the detainees interviewed by Human Rights Watch. Several former detainees gave accounts of severe beatings, electric shocks, asphyxiation, and mock executions. Former detainees were held for up to nine months in extremely harsh and inhuman conditions, with insufficient food and water to meet their basic needs. Human Rights Watch received allegations it was unable to verify that some detainees were killed.
At the time of arrest, family members or friends often witnessed state agents taking people away, with authorities rarely revealing their whereabouts or any other information. Most of these arrests could therefore be described as enforced disappearances, and almost all were incommunicado detention. Most families only saw their loved ones after they were released or transferred to an official detention facility, several months later. Some families believed the detained family members had died. Human Rights Watch documented cases in which people believed to be held in military custody have never returned, and appear to have been forcibly disappeared.
Kami military camp has a reputation as the most notorious torture and interrogation center. Human Rights Watch interviewed 39 people detained there between 2010 and 2016, and received information about many other cases. Many former detainees described beatings, asphyxiation, the use of acid to burn skin, and mock executions, as interrogators sought to extract information about their alleged links with the FDLR or opposition groups. Many were held in isolation, sometimes in a constantly dark or brightly lit cell.
Human Rights Watch interviewed 11 people who were detained and severely beaten at MINADEF in 2010 before they were transferred to Kami.
Human Rights Watch interviewed 25 former detainees of Mukamira military camp, located between Musanze and Rubavu, in northwestern Rwanda, some who were detained as recently as May 2016. Beatings were commonplace in Mukamira, and some former detainees told Human Rights Watch that military or intelligence officials tortured them or threatened to kill them, if they would not confess.
In numerous cases, Rwandan officials first took detainees who were arrested near the Congolese border or in Congo to a military base known as the “Gendarmerie,” in Rubavu district. Seventeen former detainees told Human Rights Watch how military officials hit detainees at the “Gendarmerie” or beat them with sticks and detained them in holes in the ground.
In many cases, after several months of illegal detention—and often only after detainees had signed a statement under torture—the Rwandan authorities transferred them to official detention centers, including civilian prisons, and they were then charged and put on trial. The period of their detention in military centers was erased from the public record. Police statements seen by Human Rights Watch claimed the detainees had been arrested just before their transfer to the regular justice system.
Despite being told not to reveal the abuses they faced in detention, many of the defendants told judges they had been illegally detained or tortured in military detention centers. Human Rights Watch is not aware of any judges ordering an investigation into such allegations or dismissing evidence obtained under torture, despite clear legal obligations under international human rights law to do so.
In many cases, the defendants did not receive a fair trial. Many were sentenced to lengthy prison terms, including life imprisonment, sometimes partly or entirely based on confessions or witness testimonies obtained under torture. Many are still in prison. Others were acquitted and released after lengthy pretrial detention.
Since around 2005, conditions in Rwanda’s official civilian prisons have improved considerably. In the years following the 1994 genocide, severe overcrowding and other prison conditions amounting to cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment led to the death of many prisoners. Since then, the authorities have released several thousand prisoners, thereby significantly reducing the overcrowding. Allegations of torture and ill-treatment in official civilian prisons have become rare since the mid-2000s. As this report shows, however, this progress stands in contrast with a parallel circuit of unofficial military detention centers, in which detainees, including civilians, have been subjected to serious violations over many years.
Most of the violations described in this report were committed by members of the Rwandan military, including military intelligence operatives, who have benefited from a system of impunity. Human Rights Watch is not aware of any disciplinary or judicial action against military or intelligence officials for illegal detention or torture in military centers during the period covered by this report.
The FDLR have carried out killings, rapes, and other serious abuses against civilians in eastern Congo. Many of the abuses faced by detainees and documented in this report are a result of attempts by the Rwandan government to punish the FDLR and its sympathizers for the group’s incursions into Rwanda and to extract information regarding potential future attacks. While the Rwandan government has a responsibility to protect its borders and ensure security for all its citizens, this should be done in full respect of the law. International and Rwandan law prohibit torture, illegal and arbitrary detention, enforced disappearances, and other human rights violations described in this report.
In June 2015, in a promising move, Rwanda ratified the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture (OPCAT), which requires ratifying states to set up a national preventive mechanism for the prevention of torture at the domestic level. The Rwandan government has yet to create this mechanism, despite a deadline in the OPCAT to do so one year after ratification. However, a process to establish the mechanism has commenced and consultations are ongoing. There are indications that this mechanism may be managed through the National Commission for Human Rights.
At the end of 2017, Rwanda will be reviewed by the UN Committee Against Torture (CAT), a body of 10 independent experts that monitors the implementation of the Convention against Torture.
The UN Subcommittee on the Prevention of Torture, a monitoring body of the OPCAT comprised of international experts, will conduct a state visit to Rwanda in October 2017.
Human Rights Watch shared the findings presented in this report with the government of Rwanda in December 2016, but despite repeated requests, and a second letter in August 2017, the government did not respond. Justice Minister Johnston Busingye told Human Rights Watch in 2014 that there should be zero tolerance for torture and that perpetrators should be brought to account. In 2016, in a submission for the CAT, the government stated, “there is no unofficial detention in Rwanda.”
Human Rights Watch calls on the Rwandan authorities to immediately stop all unlawful detention and torture in military custody, to investigate all allegations of violations, including those contained in this report, and to bring the perpetrators to justice, in fair and prompt trials. The government should also disclose the whereabouts of all those subjected to enforced disappearance.
International donors to Rwanda’s justice and security sectors should press Rwandan authorities to immediately halt the practices of torture and other serious human rights violations documented in this report. Financial and other support to these sectors should be re-evaluated and only continue if concrete steps are taken to end these violations and hold the perpetrators to account. While international donors are quick to praise Rwanda’s remarkable economic progress since the 1994 genocide and have repeatedly rewarded the government with substantial aid packages, the darker underside of torture, enforced disappearances, and unlawful detention should not be ignored.