Rwandan police force have been arbitrarily arresting people for violating preventive measures against COVID-19, detaining them in stadiums without due process or legal authority since directives from the Rwandan government to stem the coronavirus spread came into force in mid-March.
The New York based Human Rights Watch has implored Rwandan authorities to end the arbitrary detentions, including of journalists and bloggers trying to expose abuse, and ensure that security forces respect rights when enforcing the measures.
Reports of killings, rapes, and other serious crimes by security forces during the lockdown should be promptly and transparently investigated and those responsible held to account, the rights group said.
“Government directives to prevent the spread of COVID-19 do not give security forces carte blanche to ignore rule of law and commit abuses against the population while locking up those trying to expose them,” said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch.
“The Rwandan authorities should end these unlawful practices immediately, transparently investigate those responsible, and bring officers involved in violations and who have committed crimes to justice.”
Since the measures were announced, the police have tweeted that “failure to abide [by them]is a violation of the law” and warned that those “caught” will be fined or jailed. However, the directives do not provide for such sanctions, and the police offered no other legal basis to justify their asserted authority.
The directives, which have been extended until April 30, ban “unnecessary” movements, including for exercise; shut schools and places of worship; and ban travel between cities and districts and close borders, except for cargo and goods as well as returning Rwandans and residents, who are placed in 14-day mandatory quarantine.
By April 22, the Health Ministry had confirmed 153 cases of COVID-19 and no deaths from the disease.
Since April 8, four bloggers who had reported abuses and one of the bloggers’ drivers have been arrested and detained for allegedly violating the government directives.
After years of state interference and intimidation, most print and broadcast media are heavily dominated by pro-government views, but lately more sensitive reporting on social and human rights issues has been posted on online blogs and YouTube channels.
In a video posted on Ishema TV’s YouTube channel on April 03, three women from Kangondo II – a poor neighborhood also known as “Bannyahe,” in Remera sector of Kigali, the capital – told journalists that soldiers enforcing the lockdown raped them.
The Rwanda Defense Forces said in a statement on April 04 that an investigation had been opened into the “allegations of criminal misconduct against citizens by [a]few indisciplined (sic) RDF soldiers,” and that five suspects were in detention.
However, since then, four bloggers working for Afrimax TV, Ishema TV, and Umubavu TV, which reported on the rapes and the impact of the directives on vulnerable populations, have been arrested in circumstances that appear retaliatory.
The Rwanda Media Commission said in a statement on April 13 that none of the detained journalists were arrested in relation to their work and that online bloggers, such as those using YouTube, are not journalists and are “not authorized to interview the population.” (Source: HRW)