The mayor said, “All thieves must be killed.” He said it was an order.
−Witness to the execution of Fulgence Rukundo on December 6, 2016
Rwandan security forces summarily executed at least 37 suspected petty offenders in Rwanda’s Western Province between July 2016 and March 2017. Soldiers arbitrarily arrested and shot most of the victims, in what appears to be an officially sanctioned strategy to execute suspected thieves, smugglers, and other petty offenders, instead of prosecuting them. These killings, carried out by and with the backing of state agents, are a blatant violation of both Rwandan law and international human rights law.
Human Rights Watch also documented four enforced disappearances of suspected petty offenders between April and December 2016. The victims’ families believe the security forces killed their loved ones, but their bodies have not been found. In two other incidents documented by Human Rights Watch, in August 2016 and April 2017, authorities encouraged local residents to kill suspected thieves, and they did in fact beat the victims to death.
This report documents serious violations committed by the security forces in Rubavu and Rutsiro districts in Rwanda’s Western Province, including extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, and threats against family members and other witnesses to the violations. The report is based on 119 interviews conducted between January and July 2017 with 119 family members, witnesses, government officials, and others knowledgeable about the arrests and executions. Human Rights Watch has received credible reports of at least six other extrajudicial executions that it is continuing to verify, including some cases allegedly committed as recently as June 2017, and some cases in Rusizi district (Western Province) and Musanze district (Northern Province).
Most victims were accused of stealing items such as bananas, a cow, or a motorcycle. Others were suspected of smuggling marijuana, illegally crossing the border from the Democratic Republic of Congo into Rwanda, or of using illegal fishing nets. No effort was made to establish their guilt or bring them to justice. Instead of investigating the killings and enforced disappearances and providing information or assistance to the families, local authorities, including law enforcement officials, threatened some who dared to
Some victims were first arrested by civilian authorities who then took them to nearby military stations. Soldiers then executed the victims at or near the military base, sometimes after ill-treating them in detention. Witnesses who saw the bodies soon after the executions said they saw bullet wounds and injuries that seemed to have been caused by beatings or stabbings. One victim had been stabbed in the heart; another had a cord around his neck.
A man suspected of stealing a cow was arrested by local military and civilian officials and detained for a night in the local government office, where soldiers arrived and beat him and stabbed him in the leg with a knife. The next day, soldiers shot him dead. Soldiers forced another man to carry the remains of the cow he was accused of stealing on his back for more than five kilometers, with the cow’s head on his head. After presenting the victim to local residents, local officials, and the military during a public community meeting, soldiers then walked him to a nearby field and shot him dead. Another man was beaten to death for not turning up for community work he was required to perform.
Members of the military or the police killed at least 11 men on Lake Kivu in Rubavu and Rutsiro districts for using illegal nets known as kaningini while night fishing. There were survivors who described how they had jumped out of their fishing canoes and swam away from the approaching military or police boats. Those left behind in the canoes were shot dead by the officers.
In some cases, other security forces such as the Inkeragutabara, an auxiliary force of the Rwandan army, and the District Administration Security Support Organ (DASSO), a local defense force that supports the police, were involved in the executions.
These killings were not isolated events, but appear to be part of an official strategy. In most of the cases documented by Human Rights Watch, local military and civilian authorities told residents after the execution, often during public meetings, that they were following “new orders” or a “new law” stating that all thieves and other criminals in the region would be arrested and executed. In several cases authorities cited the identity of a recent victim and justified his or her killing based on the fact that he or she was a suspected criminal.
These killings, some of which occurred in front of multiple witnesses, are rarely discussed in Rwanda. Given the strict restrictions on independent media and civil society in Rwanda, no local media outlets have reported about the killings documented in this report, and local human rights groups are too afraid to publish any information on such issues.
In December 2016, a coalition of opposition political parties published a press release on several cases of extrajudicial killings in northwestern Rwanda, including some of the cases documented by Human Rights Watch. Soon after publication, the police in Kigali summoned opposition leader Boniface Twagirimana for interrogation on January 12, 18, and 19, 2017, and accused him of spreading unfounded rumors. He was not charged with any offense.
On July 5, 2017, Human Rights Watch wrote to Johnston Busingye, minister of justice, with copies delivered to the ministers of defense, local government and the head of the police, asking for further information on cases outlined in this report and requesting a meeting. The letter is reproduced in Appendix IV of this report and was not answered.
On July 5 and 6, 2017, Human Rights Watch met with five local authorities, including the mayor of Rubavu district and authorities in Nyamyumba sector, Nyundo sector, and Rukoko cell in Rubavu district and the executive secretary in Boneza sector, Rutsiro district. These authorities denied that killings of thieves or criminals had taken place, but one did say that people who illegally crossed the border had been killed for failing to stop when ordered to do so by soldiers, and that this was for security reasons.
The Rwandan government should ensure an immediate end to the summary executions of suspected criminals by security forces. They should also ensure that thorough, impartial investigations into these serious violations are conducted, including to establish how and with whom any policy originated; and that those responsible for the violations be held accountable. Victims’ families should be compensated for the unlawful killings.
The Rwandan government should also respect the presumption of innocence, ensure anyone accused of a crime receives a fair trial, and enforce without exception an absolute prohibition on criminal punishment for anyone not convicted in a court of law.
First Published by the Human Rights Watch.