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United States Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s planned visit to Rwanda from August 10 to 12, 2022, comes amid growing concern that the M23 armed group is receiving renewed Rwandan support for illicit operations in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Human Rights Watch said today. Blinken will also visit Congo, where M23 has expanded its control in North Kivu province, in the eastern part of the country, targeting civilians through judicial killings.

The visit provides an opportunity to condemn these attacks, including war crimes, and any documented Rwandan support for abusive conduct. The visit should also be used to highlight systematic human rights violations, including repression against opponents and civil society, both inside and outside Rwanda. Minister Blinken should press the authorities to release critics and opponents who have been jailed for exercising fundamental rights.

“Secretary Blinken must be telling the truth during his trips to Rwanda and Congo,” said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The failure to address the appalling human rights situation in Rwanda has encouraged its officials to continue committing abuses even outside its borders.”

Rwanda’s ruling party, the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF), has waged a brutal campaign against real and perceived critics of the government for years. Recently, prominent critics, including online bloggers, have been arrested and threatened. Some recently said they were tortured in prison. Authorities rarely thoroughly investigate the enforced disappearances or suspicious deaths of opponents. Arbitrary detention and ill-treatment in informal detention facilities are commonplace, particularly during high-level visits or major international events, such as the recent Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting.

Blinken is set to raise the case of Paul Rusesabagina, whose arrest and detention in August 2020 is part of a well-documented pattern of mistreatment of critics and raises serious concerns about the politicization of Rwanda’s judiciary. Rusesabagina, now a Belgian citizen, was living in the United States when he traveled from the United States to Dubai, United Arab Emirates. He was forcibly disappeared by the Rwanda Bureau of Investigation announced that Rusesabagina is in custody in Kigali. Human Rights Watch documented several violations of due process and fair trial during Rusesabagina’s trial that led to the lengthy sentence.

Blinken should also raise the cases of journalists, commentators and opposition activists who are imprisoned for exercising their rights to freedom of association and expression. On May 30, detained YouTube commentator Aimable Karasira told a judge that he had been tortured and denied medical care in prison. In court on July 7, he said he was punished for revealing his treatment while in custody and was beaten again.

Attacks and threats against Rwandan refugees living abroad, including in Uganda, Mozambique and Kenya, continue. The victims were usually political opponents or critics of the Rwandan government or President Paul Kagame.

Commentators, journalists, opposition activists and others who spoke out on current affairs and criticized government policies in Rwanda were forcibly disappeared and some died under suspicious circumstances. The Rwandan government has consistently failed to effectively investigate or ensure accountability for allegations of extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, custodial deaths, arbitrary detentions, torture and other ill-treatment. In many of these cases, evidence points to the involvement of state security forces. This created an atmosphere of fear among the population and widespread impunity.

Among these cases is the suspicious death in police custody of prominent activist and singer Kizito Mihigo, despite calls from international partners, including the then US Assistant Secretary of State for Africa, Tibor Nagy. Innokenty Bahati, a popular poet who published his works on social issues and human rights on YouTube, disappeared under suspicious circumstances on February 7, 2021 and remains missing. The authorities made vague and unsubstantiated claims that he had left the country.

Blinken should request specific information about the investigations and any steps taken by the authorities to ensure justice in these cases, Human Rights Watch said. The US must urgently make clear that there will be consequences for the government’s repression and abuses in Rwanda and beyond.

M23 originally consisted of Congolese army soldiers who participated in the rebellion in early 2012. The soldiers were formerly rebels in the Rwandan-backed armed group, the National People’s Defense Congress. M23 committed massive war crimes and seized large parts of North Kivu province during 2012 with the direct support of Rwandan army troops deployed in eastern Congo.

U.N. investigators also said at the time that Ugandan army commanders sent troops and weapons to reinforce some of M23’s operations and helped the group recruit. In 2013, after M23 briefly seized Goma, UN-backed Congolese government forces pushed M23 back into Rwanda and Uganda. In 2013, Congolese authorities issued arrest warrants for senior UN-sanctioned M23 commanders. Rwanda and Uganda have never responded to these extradition requests.

With Congo unable to demobilize the group over the past decade, M23 began recruiting and rebuilding its ranks in 2021. Since May, M23 has demonstrated the ability to overwhelm UN-backed Congolese forces. UN sources and a senior Congolese official suggested to Human Rights Watch that the group receives ongoing foreign aid.

On June 14, the US Embassy in the Congo said he was “very concerned about the recent hostilities in the east [Congo] and reported presence of Rwandan forces at [Congo]territory “. The UN Panel of Experts on Congo, mandated by the UN Security Council to monitor the implementation of the sanctions regime, confirmed in its June report the presence of people in Rwandan military uniforms in the M23 camps. On August 4, the media reported that a report by a UN panel of experts found “hard evidence” that Rwandan forces are fighting alongside and providing other support to M23. The government of Rwanda has repeatedly refused supports M23.

As in 2012, M23 commits war crimes against the civilian population, Human Rights Watch notes. Witnesses described the indiscriminate killings of at least 29 people, including children, in June and July 2022. The US should discuss with Rwanda clear reports that it is again supporting M23’s violent behavior in eastern Congo. Secretary Blinken should publicly condemn M23 attacks in the strongest possible terms and warn Rwanda of the consequences of any support for M23 in committing such abuses.

Senator Robert Menendez, chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, announced on July 20 that he would suspend US security assistance to Rwanda in Congress over concerns about its human rights record and its role in the Congolese conflict. In a letter to Blinken, Menendez asked for a comprehensive review of U.S. policy toward Rwanda.

“M23 thrives on impunity and cycles of violence fueled by contempt for basic human rights,” Mudge said. “Minister Blinken should not gloss over the abuses in both Rwanda and the Congo, but instead put human rights at the center of his visit.”

Distributed by APO Group on behalf of Human Rights Watch (HRW).

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