The young brother of a high-caliber target of the Rwandan government has disappeared at the hands of intelligence operatives and is feared dead, amid a growing crackdown against President Paul Kagame’s inner circle.
In a letter he’d written just weeks before, Jackson said he was hoping for a positive outcome in his court case — that his family was always in his heart and he dearly missed them.
On October 3, Jackson got his wish — the trumped-up charges against him of conspiring with dissidents were dropped and he expected to go home. His brother Thadeus in Kampala was thrilled and immediately tried to organize Jackson’s return with the help of the International Red Cross.
In the meantime, their elder brother Joel Mutabazi was sentenced to life in prison for plotting to kill the president. He was also convicted of terrorism, setting up an armed group, inciting the public to rise up against the state, and working with a dissident opposition group.
Mutabazi, who denied all charges against him, had been a bodyguard for President Paul Kagame for two decades and was privy to many secrets before fleeing to Uganda in 2011. He told journalists he’d grown tired of the plots, political intrigue and killings orchestrated by the regime, and just wanted to live a normal life with his wife Gloria and their two young children.
Unfortunately that would not be the case. Few people in recent years have been hounded as much as 38-year-old Mutabazi, who was a child soldier when he first joined Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Army in the early 1990s.
Having survived torture, assassination attempts and an earlier botched kidnapping, Mutabazi was under armed guard in a UN safehouse in Kampala in October 2013 when Rwandan operatives working with corrupt Ugandan police abducted him and his brother Jackson who happened to be with him that day, and brought them to Kigali.
Interpol authorities said there had been no arrest warrant issued against Mutabazi and that his transfer was illegal. A Ugandan minister working on behalf of refugees called the kidnapping an act of blatant criminality.
What is striking about Mutabazi’s case — notwithstanding the relentless Rwandan-sponsored gangsterism displayed against a bona fide refugee — is the length to which authorities have since gone in targeting his family members in a bid to obtain a forced confession.
Jackson was barely 19 years old when he was seized outside the UN safe house. He had just finished high school, was planning to continue his studies and had his entire life ahead of him. He had grown up in Uganda and had no experience with Rwanda’s blood-soaked history, his brother Thadeus said in a series of interviews with Digital Journal.
His friends and family believe Jackson was tortured in jail and Rwandan authorities tried to force him to falsely testify against his brother. But it didn’t work. “He is not easily manipulated,” Thadeus explained.
“I knew Jackson when he was a child. He was tough-minded, just like Mutabazi,” said a Rwandan dissident in Europe who followed the case closely.
Shortly after Jackson and Mutabazi were paraded in front of a military court in Kigali, Rwanda arrested Mutabazi’s sister-in-law and his uncle, charging them with various offenses.
In the run up to the verdict in October, Thadeus himself was harassed by phone by an individual he believed was an agent of the Rwandan government. And Mutabazi’s wife Gloria was sent text messages from intelligence agents, she said, urging her to come back to Rwanda.
The UN refugee agency — alarmed at the security risks Gloria and her children faced at the UN safe house in Kampala — moved her to a more secure location outside the capital. But conditions at the remote camp, which is protected by armed personnel, are harsh. She and her children have battled malaria and regularly face the risk of being bitten by venomous snakes. Her oldest child is unable to attend school because it is too far and dangerous to send him. “I’m tired of staying here and hurt that my son cannot go to school,” Gloria told Digital Journal.
J2 zeroes in on Mutabazi’s brother
Yet nothing could prepare the family for what was to happen to Jackson after his release. On October 5, he began to send desperate messages on Facebook to Thadeus, telling him he was being followed. Copies of these messages and a revealing email have been obtained by this journalist.
“Thad I need you’re help…they are ruthless,” Jackson wrote of authorities on his trail. “I either have to work with them or they will crush me totally. I can’t get out of this myself. I didn’t start this,” Jackson wrote.
Thadeus reassured him he was trying to get help from the Red Cross to facilitate his departure. But Jackson became increasingly worried.
A few days later he asked Thadeus for money, saying he was running out of options. He said his life was now in danger and he was afraid.
Then Thadeus received an email on October 12 from Jackson that left him shaken. Jackson wrote that officers from Rwanda's military intelligence, known as J2, were demanding he appear on television "to explain something about our case."
The message was taken to mean that Jackson was expected to make a public confession against his brother.
According to the email, Jackson then asked J2 officials: “What would happen when I don’t (appear on television)?” and the "burning answer" he received from Franco Rutagengwa, the head of J2, was the following: “Sure you will, because you won’t leave and you know where you have come from, don’t you?”
Thadeus said he understood Rutagengwa’s response to mean that Jackson knew the risks associated with being Mutabazi’s brother, and that he’d be severely punished if he didn’t comply with J2’s threat.
Jackson ended the email urging Thadeus to send money and get immediate help from Red Cross or else military intelligence would kill him within a week.
The last message Jackson sent to his brother was through Facebook on October 19 when he said ‘the end is near.’ Thadeus indeed sent the money but was ultimately unable to get help from the Red Cross. Jackson then disappeared and hasn’t been heard from since.
Thadeus said the family is now devastated and “has nearly lost all hope.”
Arrests, disappearances and bodies in a lake
Other Rwandans have gone missing, leaving their loved ones without recourse.
In late August 2014, a school intendant named Theogene Ntagengerwa went missing in Byumba in northern Rwanda for no apparent reason, according to his best friend living in Belgium. His family has not seen him since and refused to speak about his case when contacted by this journalist.
In May, Human Rights Watch reported that an increasing number of people had disappeared or were detained in Rwanda since March. The organization said some of the individuals were taken into custody in northwestern Rwandan and in the capital by military forces.
In August, further alarm was raised when Burundian fishermen said they’d found dozens of bodies wrapped in plastic and dumped in a lake bordering Burundi and Rwanda. The fishermen claimed the bodies had flowed downstream from the Akagera River, downstream from Rwanda. Pictures of some of the corpses showed victims with arms tied behind their backs in a signature technique that former soldiers say was used against enemies of Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Army.
Shortly thereafter, key military figures once close to Kagame were arrested and charged with inciting a rebellion against Kagame. Former presidential guard chief Tom Byabagamba and retired brigadier-general Frank Rusagara were charged with inciting rebellion for "spreading rumours" and "tarnishing the image of the country and government."
Meanwhile two prominent men previously close to the regime recently died in suspicious circumstances, critics said. On February 5, Assinapol Rwigara died in a car crash after his car was hit by a heavy truck. On Wednesday, Kagame’s former doctor Emmanuel Gasakure was shot dead while in police custody.
David Himbara, a former presidential advisor who broke with his boss and is now in Toronto said the crackdown comes amid signs that Kagame may amend the constitution and run again for president in 2017. “The regime is mopping up any real, perceived or potential negative information about Kagame. There are suggestions that the dead bodies (in Rweru) were Republican guard, the special unit that guards Kagame and therefore knows a few things,” he said.