Why do opposition members keep going “missing” in Rwanda?

He didn’t tell his wife where he was going when Eugene Ndereyimana woke up last week, and she didn’t ask. She believed the less she knew, the better.

The 29-year-old dad of two traveled to the northeastern city of Nyagatare for a political gathering on July 15 from his home in Rwanda’s southeastern Ngoma district.

But when he was only five kilometers (3.1 miles) from the venue, the people waiting for Ndereyimana to arrive lost touch with him.

Since then, he has not been seen or heard.

Eugene Ndereyimana has been missing since last week.

Ndereyimana is a FDU-Inkingi representative, an unregistered coalition of opposition parties against President Paul Kagame, who has been in power since the year 2000.

He is one of at least five members of the FDU who have been missing in Kagame’s Rwanda in the last few years under mysterious conditions.

Opposition leaders and supportive members of the party claim they face intimidation, violence, imprisonment or the prospect of disappearing because they oppose the president and his governing party, the Rwandan Patriotic Front. The President’s Office and the RPF did not respond to  request for comment on these accusations.

For Ndereyimana, that intimidation started last September, when army officers arbitrarily arrested him at a local police station, his wife Joseline Mwiseneza informed journalists, talking through a FDU spokesperson.

“For them he was an enemy,” Referring to the local authorities, Mwiseneza said. She added that the political actions of Ndereyimana caused problems in her daily lives — from bullying by security forces to the failure to obtain credit from the local bank.

Now, Mwiseneza says she doesn’t know what to say to her children, who continue to ask where their father is, and fears about the life of her husband.

Others who are politically aligned with her husband have encountered brutal ends as she waits for responses to the whereabouts of her hausband.

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Thirty-year-old Anselme Mutuyimana, a close assistant to FDU president Victoire Ingabire, was found dead in a forest in the northwest region of the country in a harrowing case in March.

According to the party, residents who discovered Mutuyimana said he seemed to have died through strangulation.

The body of Anselme Mutuyimana was discovered in March in a woods.

At the moment, reporters were told by the Rwanda Investigation Bureau that an investigation had been opened into his case and no suspect had yet been apprehended.

In another incident last October, FDU Vice President Boniface Twagirimana, who was imprisoned, went missing from a high-security prison where he was kept for five days following a transfer from another facility.

Twagirimana and eight other members of the FDU party served a sentence following a 2017 arrest on allegations of forming an armed group and attempting to overthrow the government, Twagirimana charges rejected.

Rwanda’s correctional service said he had fled from prison when he was missing. But representatives of the FDU party said they suspect “foul play.”

Human Rights Watch (HRW), speaking on the situation of Twagirimana in November, observed that “enforced disappearances are not new” in Rwanda. The group says that it has documented the government “persistent efforts to silence critics and perceived political opponents in recent years through arbitrary arrests, threats, and enforced disappearances.”

Since October 2018, FDU Vice President Boniface Twagirimana has been missing and is feared to be dead.

Party member Jean Damascene Habarugira disappeared in May 2017, according to a declaration from the FDU, after being called to meet with an official responsible for the security of his locality.

Three days later, the family of Habarugira was called from a local hospital to collect his body. The FDU said in a declaration that Habarugira was “assassinated in cold blood” due to his resistance to the agricultural policies of the local authority and his concern about police brutality.

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And in March 2016, Illuminée Iragena, a nurse and opposition activist, was also missing, supposedly compelled into a public detention center. Six months after she mysteriously disappeared, HRW said she was dead to those close to her.

FDU head Ingabire claims she thinks these occurrences, including Ndereyimana’s most latest disappearance, are a sign that the government is not “ready to open up the political space.”

“It is a kind of intimidation, that people will be afraid to be a member of the opposition party,” she told journalists last week.

In 2016, Illuminée Iragena, a nurse and activist of the FDU party, was missing. Many who knew her said that she was dead.

She suggests that Ingabire is no stranger to such tactics. She returned from the Netherlands to Rwanda in 2010 to contest the presidential election, where she lived in exile.

But soon after she was arrested following her remarks about the 1994 genocide in the country and accused of working with a “terrorist organization.”

In October, Ingabire was released from prison as part of a presidential pardon after serving eight years of her fifteen-year sentence.

Following his release from prison in September 2018, FDU president Victoire Ingabire talks to the media.

Ingabire has long said that her sentence is the consequence of her role as a prominent critic of government and that the charges have efficiently criminalized her liberty of speech. These opinions have been endorsed by international organizations such as Amnesty International and a 2017 decision of the African Court on Human and Peoples ‘ Rights.

Other opposition politicians who are not affiliated with Ingabire’s party also claim that they were punished and endangered for challenging the narrative of the governing party.

Diane Rwigara, a 37-year-old human rights activist and leader of the People’s Salvation Movement (Itabaza). “Encourages Rwandans to hold their government accountable” — had hoped to run for president in 2017.

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Instead, the electoral officials disqualified her, saying she had falsified signatures necessary for her election bid. She was eventually imprisoned on charges of incitement and fraud, accusations said to be politically motivated by her family and followers.

She spent more than a year in prison facing a 22-year prison sentence until she was acquitted in December by the High Court of Kigali for fraud allegations and insurrection.

After her acquittal last December, Diane Rwigara leaves the High Court of Kigali.

Rwigara wrote an open letter to Kagame earlier this month, accusing him of condoning an atmosphere of repression and violence for individuals who talk about “justice” issues and who are “too afraid to stand up to the ruling party.”

After her colleague, a prison guard named Jean Paul Mwiseneza, was murdered in June, she wrote the letter soon after talking to her about the jail disturbances. Rwigara claims he’s been murdered by the hands of “security organs.”

“Why are people being executed without trial?” Rwigara wrote.

She concluded the letter with a post script reading, “I will probably face grave acts of reprisal for writing this letter. But Your Excellency, please try to understand; life in Rwanda is hard to say the least when one has to constantly worry about the fate of his/her entourage.”

The President’s office did not respond to the letter’s petition for comment.

Ingabire — who is not affiliated with the movement of Rwigara — claims that while intimidating measures, including disappearances and harassment, are intended to have a chilling impact, she will not live her life in fear, and she has vowed to “fight for democracy” in her nation.

Still, Ndereyimana’s disappearance, another voice in that struggle, is a new and painful incident for the opposition from Rwanda. “It’s like he has vanished,” said Ingabire.

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