Joel Mutabazi, a former presidential bodyguard facing terrorism charges in Rwanda, is a shadow of his former self.
“He’s like a skeleton,” said his emotionally frayed wife Gloria Kayitesi in an interview, commenting on pictures of him splashed on the Internet.
Shackled and abased, Mutabazi appeared in military court last week in full view of journalists. In photos, his complexion was sallow and the whites of his eyes were inflamed with tiny veins. Physically diminished and with little prospect for freedom, he had become a man with nothing to lose.
And yet the former child soldier and repository of secrets that worked for President Paul Kagame for two decades emerged defiant. In a statement that shocked the court, Mutabazi refused to be tried, said his life was in danger and he was not guilty of terrorism and other alleged crimes.
Mutabazi—viewed as the ‘highest caliber target’ among Rwandan Tutsi refugees in Uganda capable of incriminating Kagame and his senior officials—was seized three months ago in Kampala where he had been living in a UN safe house under police surveillance. In breach of international law, Rwanda engineered his forced return and accused him of forming an armed group and conspiring to kill the president.
“If anyone knows the circumstances under which I was deported from Uganda and how the law was ignored in this process, I do not believe that there are other laws in this country that will guarantee my innocence,” Mutabazi said.
“I therefore do not wish to say anything throughout this trial, but I came here to tell my family that whatever happens to me in future, this is my stand on the charges: I am not guilty of all of them and I will not defend myself against them.”
Mutabazi knows his rights and how they’ve been acutely violated. In 2010, he was suspected of having close ties with Kayumba Nyamwasa—now one of Kagame’s enemies that used to Rwanda’s defense chief—and subjected to electric shocks, beatings, waterboarding, and sensory deprivation at Camp Kami, a notorious detention center in Rwanda.
He narrowly escaped an assassination attempt in July 2012, after fleeing to Uganda and given refugee status, when armed gunman stormed his residence in Kampala. In August 2013, Rwandan agents and rogue Ugandan police abducted him from a UN safe house yet were quickly forced to return him when senior Ugandan police and the prime minister’s office intervened. The botched operation highlighted the mercurial divisions among Ugandan government and police officials who are regularly bribed and infiltrated by Rwanda.
The latest plot point in Mutabazi’s dramatic life occurred on October 25 when Joel Aguma, Uganda’s deputy director of crime intelligence who’d just returned from a stint at Rwanda’s National Police College, set up a police sting for the refugee that saw his brutal handover to Rwandan authorities.
Officials tasked with protecting refugees called the transfer “an act of criminality” for two reasons: no Interpol arrest warrant had been approved for Mutabazi and his return was in blatant violation of the Refugee Convention, which stipulates that no refugee should be returned a country where he is likely to face persecution or torture.
Last week, after Mutabazi appeared in a Kigali courtroom, a US State Department official offered this statement:
“The United States and other concerned countries are working together to maintain a regular presence at the trial.”
“We have expressed to the Ugandan government our concern that Mutabazi was handed over to Rwandan law enforcement, despite his refugee status, and reiterated our expectation that Uganda will adhere to its obligations to protect refugees on its territory in the future.”
In December, the United States called on Rwanda to ensure that Mutabazi gets a fair trial—and is protected and monitored in detention.
“The United States has urged the government of Rwanda to ensure that Mr. Joel Mutabazi’s rights are protected while he is in detention, and that he be provided due process, other fair trial protections, and continued access to adequate legal counsel,” said Charles Hawley, public affairs officer for the US embassy in Kigali.
“We have also urged the Rwandan government to continue to grant independent monitoring organizations access to Mr. Mutabazi during his detention,” Hawley added.
Despite attempts by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the International Committee of the Red Cross to get access to Mutabazi in detention, he remains off limits—another breach of humanitarian norms. His lawyer in pretrial proceedings, Antoinette Mukamusoni, meanwhile announced she would no longer represent him and has refused all comment.
His lawyer’s frustrations stem in part from the fact that Mutabazi changed his plea in December, admitting under apparent duress he was guilty of fomenting a rebellion. At the time, Mutabazi is alleged to have said he had contacts with the FDLR, a Hutu rebel group in neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo formed from the remnants of militants accused of carrying out genocide against Rwandan Tutsis in 1994. He also reportedly confessed that he had ties to the Rwandan National Congress (RNC), an opposition group that includes General Nyamwasa.
Yet his wife and supporters contend that Mutabazi has been beaten and kept in inhumane conditions, spending 24 hours a day in a dark cell, his hands and feet bound, sleeping on the cement and suffering from blood in his urine after being subjected to genitalia torture.
A rights activist interviewed by this journalist said Mutabazi had been “beaten so bad that he sent a message to his family through an intermediary that he might not even recover from his injuries. During those beatings, he was told to plead guilty.”
And so it was a surprise to many observers last week when Mutabazi denied all charges against him, openly defying the Rwandan government and setting himself up for more torture and possible death.
“He is my Mandela,” said his wife Gloria, who expressed fear for the father of her two young children. “He said he was willing to die to tell the truth.”
The assembling of truth, of course, is a challenge in a country such as Rwanda.
So far, the evidence emerging against Mutabazi is troubling and bears more resemblance to the kind trumped up in Stalin-era kangaroo courts and show trials.
Among more than a dozen co-accused charged with terrorism and other offenses by the court, three are Mutabazi’s family members, including a teenage brother kidnapped in Uganda now offering up contrived testimony against him.
The chances of a fair trial are bleak at best.
Jean Marie Micombero was a judge for Rwanda’s military court between 1998 and 2006. He now lives in exile in Belgium and is a member of the opposition RNC. “You have to understand the way the system works,” he explained ruefully.
Major Micombero says Mutabazi’s shifting tactics—initially pleading not guilty when he arrived in Rwanda then changing change his plea after interrogation, to finally claim his innocence before a judge and media—do not come as a surprise at all.
“When there is a kidnapping by the directorate of military intelligence or external security services, they try to work on you psychologically. If you are ready to give information they want, they will not torture you. They call the judicial police, you make the confession and you escape torture. But if you refuse to cooperate, which is what I believe happened in Mutabazi’s case initially—they will torture you until you are at a physical and psychological breaking point.”
“I’ve seen it many times. In the hands of intelligence services, an accused will deny everything and then be tortured. They then confess in front of the public minister or judicial police. But when they appear before a judge, they deny everything because they know they are in front of the law.”
“This is what Mutabazi has done. He knows the deck is stacked against him. He has nothing to lose. He says to himself that this is a huge fabrication; there is an entire series of people ready to testify against me. Instead of dying like an insect, he says: ‘I refuse.’
“Mutabazi not only has denied having committed acts that he was earlier forced to admit, but he is trying to demonstrate that he is a refugee and should not be appearing before the judges of a country that he has fled.”
Micombero said Mutabazi will likely face one of three grim scenarios: a life sentence with no possibility for parole, being poisoned or being shot.
“He cannot be acquitted. There is no possibility for attenuating circumstances. In Rwanda, military justice is under the jurisdiction of the ministry of defense, not the Supreme Court. There can be no decision that goes against the Rwandan Defense Forces.”
“He could be assassinated. They have their smart poison. He could swallow it and die from an abdominal attack. He can expect this.”
“Or they will say that he tried to escape and shoot him. Since he doesn’t have a lawyer and he is alone with no one to check on him, Rwanda can do what it wants with him.”
“He knows his fate and that’s why he’s taken this attitude. This is the way the Rwandan judicial system works. The Rwandan government is like a rabid dog that is wounded and has nothing to lose.”
And yet Micombero said the international community still had a role to play in Mutabazi’s favor.
“I think it’s now up to groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty and independent media to see whether there is some kind of a guard rail left in Rwanda, that the government might not be as rabid as people say it is, that it might be intelligent enough not to kill him but to sentence him.”
“Ultimately I hope that Joel Mutabazi is not left to the mercy of people who have lost all reason.”
The subtext to Mutabazi’s life at the hands of the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front is how Kagame will fair at the end of all this. The president may indeed have made a serious miscalculation about his former bodyguard’s actual intentions and level of courage— one that could create more political maelstrom than he currently needs.
On the basis of universal jurisdiction, a court in Spain is deepening its investigations into war crimes committed by Rwanda’s government. In 2008, Spanish Investigative Judge Andreu Merelles issued an indictment charging 40 senior Rwandan military officials with crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and terrorism.
In conversations with this journalist from his heavily guarded room in Kampala—before and after his bungled abduction in August—an increasingly apprehensive Mutabazi showed no appetite for testifying before any court or talking about Kagame’s record. Instead, the refugee preferred to discuss the dangers he faced, how he was treated before leaving his homeland, and his desire for him and his family for asylum in a safe country.