JOHANNESBURG -- A Rwandan opposition leader apparently arrested in Mozambique last month should be immediately charged in court or released, Human Rights Watch said Tuesday.
Cassien Ntamuhanga, a radio journalist in Rwanda who was jailed after being convicted of conspiring against the government, escaped from prison in Rwanda in 2018 and sought asylum in Mozambique. His application was still being processed at the time he was taken into custody on May 23, according to the human rights organization.
Ntamuhanga was taken by seven men who showed identification cards for Mozambique's National Criminal Investigation Service and taken to the local police station, said the rights group, citing four witnesses. Police officers told neighbors who accompanied Ntamuhanga to the station to leave, the group said.
Ntamuhanga was arrested on the island of Inhaca in Maputo bay and was later taken by boat to the mainland, chained and handcuffed, said Human Rights Watch.
Mozambique’s police force has since denied knowledge of Nhamutanga's arrest and said he is not being held by them.
One of the men who took Ntamuhanga into custody spoke in a Rwandan language, according to a statement issued by the Association of Rwandan Refugees in Mozambique.
A longtime critic of Rwandan President Paul Kagame, Ntamuhanga was sentenced to 25 years in prison in 2015 for allegedly conspiring against the Rwandan government. Press freedom group Reporters Without Borders said at the time that the “harsh and disproportionate sentence reflects the authoritarian nature of President Kagame’s government and its growing desire to gag all dissent in the run-up to the 2017 presidential elections.”
Ntamahunga was convicted alongside the singer and activist Kizito Mihigo, who was pardoned in 2018 but re-arrested while trying to flee the country in February 2020 and died in police custody four days later.
“Ntamuhanga’s prior conviction, the fate of Mihigo, and Rwanda’s track record of ruthlessly targeting critics and dissidents across the globe are reasons to be gravely concerned for Ntamuhanga’s safety,” Human Rights Watch said Tuesday.
“The Mozambican authorities should publicly disclose his whereabouts, allow him access to a lawyer and visits by relatives, and, if he is to be charged, promptly bring him before a court," said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch.
Ntamuhanga is not the first Rwandan exile to have trouble in Maputo, according to Mozambique’s National Network of Human Rights Defenders. In October 2012, Theogene Turatsinze, former director of the Development Bank of Rwanda, was found dead there, and his death has not yet been solved. His body was found floating in the bay of the capital with his hands tied behind his back after he had been reported missing for two days, according to a report this month by the human rights network.
In a separate incident, Rwanda’s former head of intelligence, Patrick Karegeya, was found dead in a hotel in South Africa in 2014.
Following that death, South Africa expelled two diplomats, including Claude Nikobisanzwe, who is now Rwanda’s High Commissioner in Mozambique, the first person to hold that position since the diplomatic offices were opened in Maputo in 2019.
Mozambican President Filipe Nyusi paid a surprise visit to Kagame in Kigali at the end of April, and the two both attended a summit of African leaders in Paris in May earlier this month. Recently French President Emmanuel Macron visited Kigali.
Rwandan media have suggested that Rwanda could send a military contingent to help protect a massive liquified natural gas project in northern Mozambique by the French oil and gas company Total. All work on the $20 billion gas project has been suspended following attacks by Mozambique's Islamic extremist rebels on the nearby town of Palma.
Bowker contributed from Belgrade, Serbia