John Williams Ntwali joins a list of critics who have died or disappeared in Rwanda

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The death of a Rwandan newspaper editor and YouTuber this month has added to concerns around claims by the UK Government that the country is safe for undocumented migrants to be deported to, after the death was branded “suspicious”.

Human Rights Watch has called for an “effective, independent and transparent investigation” into the death of John Williams Ntwali, editor of The Chronicles. Ntwali was “regularly threatened” for exposing human rights abuses, according to the group.

“John Williams Ntwali was a lifeline for many victims of human rights violations and often the only journalist who dared report on issues of political persecution and repression,” said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch.

The Chronicles is one of the last remaining independent papers operating in Rwanda, where President Paul Kagame’s authoritarian government has clamped down on critics. He infamously said that “there is no one in prison in Rwanda who shouldn’t be in prison, but there are some outside of prison who should be in prison” in response to a question about human rights in his country.  

Rwandan police say Ntwali died in a motorcycle accident at 2.50am on 18 January, but Human Rights Watch says it hasn’t been able to find a police report of any traffic accident at the location and no evidence of a report was seen until the following evening.

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Ntwali’s last video, posted a day before he died, was about a genocide survivor who had been beaten by police, HRW said. 

The journalist warned HRW in June that he might be arrested or otherwise dealt with, saying “I don’t know what’s going to happen to me” after the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting which took place in Kigali in June 2022.

“I’m told that, after CHOGM, they won’t play around with us anymore,” he said. I’ve been told five or six times. I receive phone calls from private numbers. Some [intelligence] people have come to my house twice to tell me. NISS [National Intelligence and Security Services] has told me ‘if you don’t change your tone, after CHOGM, you’ll see what happens to you’.”

Ntwali joins a list of critics who have died or disappeared in Rwanda, as reported by this newspaper.

“Arbitrary detention, ill-treatment and torture in official and unofficial detention centres are commonplace,” according to HRW. “Authorities regularly fail to conduct credible investigations into cases of enforced disappearances and suspicious deaths of government opponents.”

Police spokesman John Bosco Kabera said in the capital Kigali that a driver involved in the accident has been arrested and a “file has been opened for prosecution”.

The UK Government’s enthusiasm for Rwanda comes despite a 2014 US State Department rebuke of Kagame’s Government for a “succession of what appear to be politically-motivated murders of prominent Rwandan exiles”. 

Kagame’s ties to Britain date back to Tony Blair, whose African Governance Initiative has worked to boost the country’s image; while his wife Cherie Blair represents Israeli company NSO, which owns the Pegasus software Kagame is accused of using to spy on opponents. Kagame denies using the software.

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