Phocas Ndayizera, a freelance journalist who contributed to the Kinyarwanda and Kirundi services of the BBC, was arrested in November 2018 and charged with terrorism alongside 12 other defendants. In May 2021, Ndayizera was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison and, as of December 1, 2022, is currently serving that sentence.
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.
On November 28, 2018, a 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 on November 19, 2019, according to a report by BBC Gahuza. According to Rwanda’s criminal procedure code at the time, felony suspects could 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 who escaped in 2017 and was living in Mozambique until May 2021, when he disappeared after being detained by men believed to be police, according to reports by rights groups and news outlets.
Ntamuhanga was a co-defendant in absentia in the case against Ndayizera, and prosecutors produced what they claimed to be WhatsApp messages between the two as evidence, according to BBC Gahuza. They claimed that Ntamuhanga had pledged to pay US$15,000 in support of the alleged terror activities, according to this same source.
Prosecutors said that Ndayizera and Ntamuhanga had 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 a November 2022 statement emailed to CPJ, Rwanda’s Ministry of Justice said that Ndayizera’s “allegation of torture in the form of coerced confession” had been “dismissed by the court due to lack of evidence from the Defense.”
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 businessperson 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. 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 initially 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 Ndayizera’s lawyer did not respond to CPJ’s detailed queries sent via messaging app in 2021.
On May 6, 2021, the court convicted Ndayizera and seven of his co-accused of conspiring to carry out terror acts; the rest of the defendants were acquitted and released, according to multiple media reports. Ndayizera was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment, with the judge saying that the journalist would have faced up to 25 years had the defendants carried out the alleged terror plot, according to those reports.
Ntamuhanga was sentenced, in absentia, to 25 years in prison, those reports said.
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.
The U.S. Congress-funded Voice of America quoted Ndayizera’s lawyer saying he would consult with his client before filing an appeal. In September 2022, a person familiar with Phocas’ case who spoke to CPJ via messaging app on the condition of anonymity, citing security concerns, confirmed that an appeal had been filed in the case but said no hearing date had been set.
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 2020 email, the Rwanda Media Commission (RMC), a self-regulatory body, told CPJ that the charges against Ndayizera were not connected to “professional journalism.”
In its November 2022 email responding to CPJ’s queries about Ndayizera and other detained journalists, Rwanda’s Ministry of Justice said that none of the journalists have been charged or convicted of “offenses related to their purported journalistic activities” and that their cases “were conducted in full accordance” with Rwandan law.
CPJ’s October and November 2022 emails to Rwanda’s National Public Prosecution Authority did not receive any replies. CPJ contacted National Public Prosecution Authority spokesperson Faustin Nkusi via messaging app in November 2022 but did not receive any response.