On 5 July 2021, I sent a communication to the Government of Rwanda along with 3 other experts regarding the continued detention of Mr. François-Xavier Byuma, who has served 14 of his 17 year long sentence.
Mr. François-Xavier Byuma is a human rights defender, and head of Turengere Abana, an organisation based in Kigali which fights against the sexual exploitation and forced labour of children. He was previously the coordinator of the Network of Central African Human Rights Defenders.
In early 2007, Mr. Byuma undertook some research into an allegation that a 17-year-old girl was raped by a local Gacaca judge. After his research commenced, that same judge issued a summons to Mr. Byuma, in an apparent conflict of interest. Knowing that this judge would preside over his own case, Mr. Byuma wrote to the National Service of Gacaca Jurisdictions (SNJG) expressing concern that he may not receive a fair trial. The SNJG replied that it had found his letter to be “baseless and unfounded.”
Mr. Byuma’s trial began in Kigali on 13 May 2007. He was accused of having been present at a roadblock erected to prevent Tutsi fleeing the genocide, having a firearm, and participating in weapons training. In protest against the presiding judge’s alleged conflict of interest, Mr. Byuma refused to testify. The judge threatened to charge him for his refusal to testify. Mr. Byuma eventually decided to subject himself to the jurisdiction. On 14 May 2007, Mr. Byuma was arrested and transferred to the central prison in Kigali.
On 20 May 2007, Mr. Byuma pleaded not guilty in front of the Gacaca tribunal and was released on the same day, awaiting the final verdict. On 27 May 2007, the Gacaca tribunal found Mr. Byuma guilty of participating in weapons training and several other counts (including an alleged participation in an attack and abduction and assault of a Tutsi woman) which were not mentioned when the charges were first read to Mr. Byuma before trial. He was sentenced to 19 years in prison.
On 18 August 2007, an appeals court upheld the 19-year prison sentence despite numerous irregularities. Mr. Byuma had presented court records revealing that one prosecution witness who accused him of assault had previously testified that a different person committed the crime, but whose name the witness never mentioned in the Gacaca proceedings. Mr. Byuma pointed out that the trial court declined to hear some of the witnesses whom he sought to call in his defense and failed to reconcile contradictions in the evidence. The appeals court gave no justification for its decision affirming the conviction and offered no explanation for its failure to deal with the fact that the presiding judge of the lower court had an ostensible conflict of interest with Mr. Byuma.
In 2009, following a public outcry from local and international organizations, the SNJG accepted Mr. Byuma’s request for revision and brought a bench of judges from the eastern part of the country to decide the case. During the hearing, however, one of the lawyers of Mr. Byuma was not permitted to sit next to his client and was repeatedly denied the opportunity to question witnesses.
The Court, deciding his request for revision, reportedly gave little consideration to additional defence witnesses who testified but concluded that new evidence had been offered by accusing witnesses, even though some of this information was inconsistent with earlier testimony given at trial and on appeal. The court also found Mr. Byuma guilty of possessing a firearm, in violation of a 2006 SNJG directive which stated that having a firearm or being at a roadblock did not in itself constitute a crime. The court upheld Mr. Byuma’s conviction but reduced his sentence to 17 years’ imprisonment.
Mr. Byuma is currently held at Nyarugenge Prison, Mageragere Sector in Kigali. Reportedly no visits have been possible since March 2020, therefore his current conditions of detention are not known.
In the communication we expressed deep concern at the trial and sentencing of Mr. François-Xavier Byuma. This long-term detention appears to have been punishment to his peaceful activities in defence of human rights, in particular his work against the sexual exploitation and forced labour of children. We questioned whether Mr. Byuma had his fair trial rights violated, given that the judge refused to recuse himself despite past conflict with the accused, and the appeals court did not take into account the testimonies of additional witnesses.
This is a shorter version of the original communication.