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Rwanda’s top UK diplomat oversaw use of Interpol to target regime opponents

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Rwanda’s top diplomat in the UK oversaw the use of the international justice system to target opponents of the country’s rulers around the world, the Guardian can reveal.

New details of the Rwandan government’s suppression of opposition beyond its borders add to concerns about the regime at the heart of Rishi Sunak’s asylum policy.

During nine years as Rwanda’s justice minister and attorney general, Johnston Busingye, now the high commissioner to the UK, presided over at least three cases in which Rwandan exiles who had defied the authorities were detained, deported or declared wanted on dubious grounds.

In one case, the ulterior motive behind Rwanda’s request for an international criminal alert against a former senior official was considered so flagrant that it was cancelled by the agency responsible for issuing them.

Busingye speaking to reporters in 2015. Photograph: PA Images/Alamy

It is not the first time Busingye has been linked to acts of repression by the Rwandan government. While he was justice minister, Busingye admitted the regime took part in an operation in Dubai to seize Paul Rusesabagina, a dissident who inspired the film Hotel Rwanda.

The Lantos Foundation, a US human rights organisation, asked the UK to impose sanctions on Busingye after his nomination. The Labour MP Chris Bryant said at the time that Busingye “should be on our list of sanctioned individuals, not people being escorted to Buckingham Palace to have their credentials agreed by Her Majesty”.

For seven months, Busingye’s nomination as the ambassador in London went unconfirmed. Then, in April 2022, the Rwanda asylum deal was agreed with the authoritarian president, Paul Kagame. Days later, Busingye was invited to the palace to be formally appointed.

A spokesperson for the Lantos Foundation told the Guardian the timing “raises the question of whether there was, in fact, a connection between the asylum deal and the UK’s decision to ultimately accept Busingye’s credentials”.

A Foreign Office spokesperson said: “Nominations for ambassadors or high commissioners are considered on a case-by-case basis in the usual way and a range of factors are taken into account before a decision is made.”

The Rwanda policy appeared to have been suspended last week. Sunak had wanted the first flights taking asylum seekers to the east African country to go in July, but this seemed unlikely in the lead-up to the general election. A high court judge has asked the UK government to confirm the earliest date it intends to start removing asylum seekers.

Sinister side of Kagame’s ‘safe’ regime

When he announced the UK’s deal with Rwanda, Boris Johnson, then prime minister, said: “Let’s be clear, Rwanda is one of the safest countries in the world.” An investigation, Rwanda Classified, by an international coalition of journalists including the Guardian, coordinated by Forbidden Stories, shows that for some who cross Rwanda’s ruler, nowhere is safe.

Kagame came to power in 1994, when the Tutsi rebel army he led overthrew the Hutu regime that had unleashed genocide. After 100 days in which more than 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus had been killed, little was left of Rwanda. Kagame restored order and charted an economic recovery aided by western powers that had stood by while the massacres raged.

Yet there was always a more sinister side to Kagame’s rule. The fallout from the genocide triggered war in neighbouring Congo. Although peace was declared in 2003, Rwanda has maintained a hold on eastern Congo. A recent UN report said Rwandan troops were operating alongside M23, a Tutsi militia that rapes, kills and loots with impunity.

The journalist John Williams Ntwali died in suspicious circumstances in 2023.

Within the country some journalists have said they feel threatened. John Williams Ntwali, a leading Rwandan reporter who published sensitive stories about Kagame’s regime, was warned he would “end up in prison or dead” before he died in suspicious circumstances in 2023. Reporting by Rwanda Classified has found that the authorities have given conflicting accounts of what befell him.

Kagame’s influence stretches beyond central Africa. His opponents abroad live in fear that they might suffer the same fate as his former intelligence chief, whose bloodied body was found in a South African hotel room. A western journalist who has reported on suspicious deaths of Kagame’s enemies has become the target of a smear campaign.

Yet Kagame has a chorus of prominent admirers, among them the Conservative MP Andrew Mitchell. From 2020 to 2022, Mitchell was paid nearly £40,000 for nine days’ work a year by a bank founded by Kagame’s former finance minister. Mitchell is now a Foreign Office minister. A Foreign Office spokesperson said: “All the minister’s previous interests when he was a backbencher have been declared in the correct way.”

Mitchell has been a staunch defender of what he calls Kagame’s “remarkable” regime. He has raised the case of five Rwandans living in the UK whose extradition Kagame’s regime has demanded. They deny allegations of complicity in the genocide. The UK police are investigating but a British court has ruled that, because they would not have a fair trial, they should not be extradited.

Photographs of some of the people who were killed during the 1994 genocide, displayed at the Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre. Photograph: Dai Kurokawa/EPA

In 2019 Mitchell quoted Busingye, then justice minister, as saying: “The UK will go down in history as the only country in Europe which knowingly shielded alleged Rwandan génocidaires from justice.”

Campaigners warn that the use of the genocide by Busingye and fellow members of Kagame’s regime to attack opponents casts a shadow over genuine attempts to hold the perpetrators of 1994’s atrocities to account.

Abuse of Interpol red notices

In 2013 Busingye was appointed attorney general and justice minister. The following year, alongside Kagame, he welcomed to Rwanda the head of Interpol, the international agency that runs global cooperation between police forces, to launch a renewed hunt for fugitive génocidaires.

Questions quickly surfaced about how Rwanda uses red notices, the worldwide alerts Interpol issues when one of its member countries wants a suspect arrested.

The entrance of Interpol’s headquarters in Lyon, France. Photograph: Olivier Chassignole/AFP/Getty Images

In July 2016, Enoch Ruhigira, a Rwandan living in New Zealand, visited Germany and was arrested. Before the genocide, he had served as a senior official in the Hutu regime. When the killing started, Ruhigira distributed machetes and organised roadblocks to snare Tutsis, according to a 2004 red notice against him, seen by the Guardian.

The red notice had been withdrawn a year before his arrest, after it emerged that Ruhigira had fled Rwanda before the crimes he supposedly committed. Ruhigira was released without charge after eight months.

Another exiled Hutu, Leopold Munyakazi, is now in a Rwandan prison. Munyakazi was a member of the opposition. He moved to the US in 2004 and claimed asylum. According to Human Rights Watch, Interpol issued red notices in 2006 and 2008 accusing him of genocide.

In 2016 he was deported even though an investigation by the US immigration authorities was “almost certainly” compromised by a Rwandan spy, according to a leaked FBI report.

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In Rwanda he was sentenced to life for genocide but an appeal judge quashed the conviction due to lack of evidence. Then he was given nine years for “genocide denial” because he had said: “I refer to it as civil war, not genocide; it was about political power.” Munyakazi’s case was an example of “abusive restrictions on free speech”, Human Rights Watch said.

The leaked FBI report, written in 2015 while Busingye was justice minister, said Rwanda had been “attempting to manipulate … the Interpol red notice system”.

Five years later, in 2020, Interpol issued another alert on behalf of Rwanda. This time it was for Eugene Gasana, who had served as Rwanda’s ambassador to the US and the UN. His diplomatic career, and his long friendship with Kagame, ended when he disagreed with the president’s plan to extend his rule.

Gasana, then Rwanda’s ambassador to the UN, speaking to the media at the UN headquarters in New York in 2014. Photograph: Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images

The red notice said Gasana was wanted under a warrant issued by Rwanda’s top prosecutor – who reported to Busingye. His alleged crime was rape and sexual harassment.

Gasana told Interpol the allegations had been concocted by Kagame’s regime to “destroy him”, and that it could only be for an “ulterior motive” as he could not be extradited for a crime allegedly committed in the US.

Interpol’s internal watchdog sided with Gasana, finding that although one of his accusers had brought a civil claim, US law enforcement had “already investigated and declined to prosecute”. The red notice was cancelled in July 2021 for having a “predominant political dimension”.

An Interpol spokesperson said the agency “has a number of systems in place to avoid the abuse of our systems, and these have been significantly strengthened over the last few years”.

Bill Browder, an anti-corruption campaigner whom the Kremlin tried to hound through Interpol, said the international justice system was being “polluted” by “rogue regimes” including Russia, China, Iran and Venezuela abusing red notices. “For Rwanda to join that group while the UK government is saying it is a safe country to send asylum seekers is an absurdity.”

Yolande Makolo, Rwanda’s government spokesperson, said Rwanda had “built a fair and transparent system which has delivered justice to the victims” of the genocide. She added: “Rwanda has also worked with international partners to track down genocide suspects, or any other criminals, and we will continue to ensure that our justice system, in which Rwandans have a high level of trust, keeps our citizens and all those who live in Rwanda safe.”

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