Phocas Ndayizera

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Phocas Ndayizera, a freelance journalist who contributed to the Kinyarwanda and Kirundi services of the British Broadcasting Corporation, was arrested in November 2018 and charged with terrorism alongside 12 other defendants. Denied bail, his trial began in November 2019, and in September 2020, prosecutors requested that the courts sentence Ndayizera and his co-defendants to life in prison.

The Rwanda Investigation Bureau (RIB) arrested Ndayizera in Nyamirambo, a neighborhood of the capital Kigali, on November 21, 2018, but did not immediately inform his family or the public, leading his wife to file a missing persons report on November 22, 2018, in their home district of Muhanga, in Rwanda’s Southern Province, according to media reports and journalists who spoke to CPJ.

On November 28, 2018, an RIB spokesperson presented Ndayizera to reporters at a press conference in Kigali, and said that the journalist was arrested while receiving explosives, including dynamite, and that the authorities had linked him with terrorist groups, according to a report by Agence France-Presse.

Ndayizera’s trial began November 19, 2019, according to a report by BBC Gahuza. According to Rwanda’s criminal procedure code, suspects can be detained for up to a year before the start of a trial. Ndayizera was charged, alongside 12 others, with plotting to carry out terror attacks on power and water installations in Rwanda, according to that BBC Gahuza report.

Prosecutors alleged that Ndayizera was connected to Cassien Ntamuhanga, a radio journalist who was sentenced to 25 years in prison in 2015 for conspiracy to murder and conspiracy against the president but escaped in 2017 and is believed to be in exile, according to media reports. Ntamuhanga is a co-defendant in absentia in the case against Ndayizera, and prosecutors produced what they claim to be WhatsApp messages between the two as evidence, according to BBC Gahuza. They claim that Ntamuhanga had pledged to pay $15,000 in support of the alleged terror activities, according to this same source. 

Prosecutors say that Ndayizera and Ntamuhanga have known each other since childhood, according to a report by the news website Igihe and three journalists who spoke to CPJ on condition of anonymity.

Ndayizera pleaded guilty to the charges during bail hearings in late 2018 but following the start of the trial the journalist and his co-accused changed their plea to not guilty, saying their earlier plea had been coerced, according to media reports. In January 2020, Ndayizera told the High Court Chamber for International Crimes in the southern Nyanza district that he had been tortured and forced to sign the earlier confession, according to a BBC Gahuza report.

In February 2020, one of the co-defendants, Eliaquam Karangawa, said that he had been promised freedom if he implicated Ndayizera, according to BBC Gahuza. Karangawa denied receiving any payment to commit acts of terrorism, saying that he and Ndayizera had received a payment from an American businessman to purchase irrigation and fertilizer manufacturing machines, according to that report. 

On September 18, 2020, prosecutors presented what they claimed were recordings of communication between Ntamuhanga and the co-defendants, according to BBC Gahuza and a journalist familiar with the case who spoke to CPJ on the condition of anonymity. During that hearing, prosecutors asked for the defendants to be sentenced to life imprisonment, according to those sources. In October, Ndayizera denied that the audio recordings were of his voice, according to BBC Gahuza

During an October 14, 2020 hearing, Ndayizera’s defense attorney said that when the journalist was originally arrested in 2018, he had been questioned in connection to his journalism, but that this original case was never presented in court, according to a report by BBC Gahuza. The report did not specify the nature of the journalism for which Ndayizera was questioned, and CPJ’s efforts to reach Ndayizera’s lawyer via messaging application were unsuccessful in September and October 2020. 

Following Ndayizera’s arrest in 2018, three journalists and one human rights defender familiar with his case told CPJ that his arrest could have been connected to his association with the BBC. Rwanda suspended the BBC Kinyarwanda language broadcasts in 2014, over allegations that a BBC documentary included genocide denial, as CPJ documented at the time. The service is available online. 

Ndayizera covered some sensitive stories which were aired by the BBC, including the 2017 arrest of a woman whose husband was allegedly involved with the opposition Rwanda National Congress, and part of the 2014 trial of Joel Mutabazi, a former presidential bodyguard later sentenced to life in prison for terrorism and plotting to kill President Paul Kagame. However, at the time of Ndayizera’s arrest, the BBC reported that he had not contributed any reports for five months. 

RIB spokesperson Modeste Mbabazi told CPJ in 2018 that Ndayizera’s arrest was not linked to his journalism, and referred CPJ to prosecutors for comment.

In a November email, the Rwanda Media Commission, a self-regulatory body, told CPJ that the charges against Ndayizera were not connected to “professional journalism.”

Rwandan Justice Minister Johnston Busingye did not respond to emails and messages from CPJ requesting comment on Ndayizera’s detention in September and November 2020. 

In a phone call in November 2020, Prosecutor General Aimable Havugiyaremye said that his office’s spokesperson, Faustin Nkusi, would respond to queries. Despite acknowledging receipt of WhatsApp messages from CPJ in September and November 2020, Nkusi did not provide comment on Ndayizera’s case. 

Judiciary spokesperson Harrison Mutabazi did not respond to CPJ’s emailed requests for comment in October and November 2020.