On 22 February 2018, at least 11 Congolese refugees were killed when the police opened fire on protestors in Karongi town and in Kiziba refugee camp, both in Western Rwanda. Further police operations in Kiziba in April and May resulted in clashes between refugees and the police, with at least one refugee dying of his injuries.
One year on, rather than investigating the unnecessary and/or excessive use of force by police, the Rwandan authorities have arrested and prosecuted refugees for their involvement in protests that were largely peaceful, as well as for “spreading false information with intent to cause a hostile international opinion against the Rwandan Government” by sharing information about the events with international media among others.
The fact that the protests were unauthorized is not enough to justify the decision to disperse them and certainly does not justify the excessive use of force that was employed. While there appears to have been isolated incidents of violence from the protestors, this was not inevitable and might have been avoided with the deployment of effective lawful policing techniques. These incidents and the subsequent prosecution of refugees involved demonstrate the Government of Rwanda’s lack of tolerance towards those who express dissent in the country, through whatever means.
This briefing is based on 28 interviews, analysis of video footage and photographs, and a review of official statements and media coverage. Amnesty International shared its detailed findings with the Rwandan government, the National Commission for Human Rights (NCHR) and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) on 1 February 2019 but had not received a response by time of publication.
VIOLENT RESPONSE TO PROTESTS
On 20 February 2018, hundreds of Congolese refugees walked out of Kiziba refugee camp in protest at cuts in assistance and other proposed changes. Up to three refugees were seriously injured when soldiers from the Rwanda Defence Force (RDF) opened fire in an apparent attempt to disperse the crowd on its way to the UNHCR field office in Karongi, around 15 km away from the camp.
Between 20-22 February, the Rwanda National Police (RNP), UNHCR and government officials repeatedly asked the refugees that had converged outside the field office to return to the camp. Police encircled the crowd and on the third day of the protest, there was a swift escalation. According to witnesses, around 15 minutes after a final warning was issued, teargas was fired into the crowd. A red flare was fired while teargas still in the air, and was promptly followed by the police opening fire into the crowd using, resulting in the deaths of at least eight and injuries to at least 20 refugees.
The next day, the RNP reported that “violent demonstrators armed with stones, sticks and metal projectiles assaulted and wounded seven police officers. Police were forced to use teargas to disperse the rioters, protect and rescue officials, and secure the nearby communities.” The statement does not refer to or explain why the police shot into the crowd.
While some of the protestors may have been throwing stones, the RNP officers were equipped with protective riot gear, and do not appear to have been under any immediate threat to their lives. The use of live ammunition in these circumstances would therefore have been unlawful and unnecessary. In any case, shooting randomly into a crowd of people cannot be justified even as a response to an immediate threat of
RWANDA: INVESTIGATE KILLINGS OF REFUGEES
death or serious injury. Following the killings, UNHCR said that “this tragedy should have been avoided and the disproportionate use force against refugees is not acceptable.”