Rwandan officials have summarily executed “at least 37 suspected petty offenders” in the last year instead of prosecuting them, a new report from Human Rights Watch (HRW) says. The rights group said that the killings were “not isolated events” and were part of an official strategy to “spread fear, enforce order, and deter any resistance to government orders or policies.”
Victims were suspected of committing minor criminal offenses like stealing bananas, a cow, or a motorcycle; smuggling marijuana; using illegal fishing nets, or illegally crossing the border from the Democratic Republic of Congo into Rwanda. Witnesses who saw the bodies reported seeing bullet wounds and injuries that seemed to have been caused by beatings or stabbings. HRW said that the killings took place in Rwanda’s Western Province between July 2016 and March 2017, and were “a blatant violation of both Rwandan law and international human rights law.”
The accusations come a few weeks before the country goes to the polls—an election president Paul Kagame is expected to win again. The 2017 elections will be the country’s third multiparty presidential election since the 1994 genocide that killed 800,000 people, many of them belonging to Kagame’s minority Tutsi community. And while Kagame is credited with transforming the central African nation, opposition to his government has often been muted and critics have been known to disappear or wind up dead.
In the cases documented by HRW, police and auxiliary security units, sometimes with the assistance of civilian authorities, were accused of apprehending and “executing” the victims. There were also incidents in which local residents followed orders from authorities to kill suspected thieves—beating victims to death. Authorities also declared in public meetings that they were following “new orders” which called for the killing of thieves and other criminals.
Given the restrictions placed on the press in Rwanda, Human Rights Watch said that no local media outlet covered the killing documented in their report. Opposition members who voiced their concern over the extrajudicial killings have also been interrogated and accused of spreading rumors.
After the release of the report, Rwanda’s minister of justice augmented the government’s position by calling the allegations “fake” on Twitter.