The Rwandan authorities are arbitrarily arresting and unlawfully holding some of the country’s most vulnerable people in an unofficial detention center, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.
The 48-page report, “‘Why Not Call This Place a Prison?’: Unlawful Detention and Ill Treatment in Rwanda’s Gikondo Transit Center,” documents prolonged and unlawful detention in the center, in the Rwandan capital, Kigali, between 2011 and 2015. The arbitrary detention of people such as street vendors, sex workers, beggars, homeless people, and suspected petty criminals at Gikondo (known colloquially as Kwa Kabuga) reflects an unofficial policy of keeping people the authorities consider “undesirable” away from the public eye. Until 2014, many street children were also detained there.
“Kigali is often praised for its cleanliness and tidiness, but its poorest residents have been paying the price for this positive image,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The contrast between the immaculate streets of central Kigali and the filthy conditions in Gikondo couldn’t be starker.” The report is based on extensive research in Rwanda and interviews with 57 former detainees, as well as detainees’ relatives and other sources. Human Rights Watch found that the city’s poor are harassed, rounded up by the police, and sent to Gikondo with no regard for due process. They are held in deplorable conditions for periods ranging from a few days to several months, without charge, in violation of Rwandan and international law and Rwanda’s regional and international obligations.
Several thousand people are likely to have passed through the center over the past decade. The new report follows up on Human Rights Watch research on the center in 2006.
“Everyone here in Kigali can be arrested and taken to Kwa Kabuga,” a former detainee told Human Rights Watch. “When you spend a day without being arrested, you say God has been good.”
Ill-treatment and beatings are commonplace at Gikondo. Police or other detainees known as “counselors,” acting on the orders or with the acquiescence of the police, routinely beat detainees for humiliation, extortion, or punishment for trivial actions such as talking too loudly or not forming an orderly line for the toilets.
Women detained with their infants or babies are particularly vulnerable, as they are frequently beaten when their children defecate on the floor. A woman who had been detained with her young child in 2014 told Human Rights Watch: “My child had a bad stomach and she could not leave the room to use the toilet… I tried to open the door but the ‘counselor’ refused. Since my child was in pain, I decided I would rather be beaten so she could use the toilet. This happened to me twice. You just hand your child to a friend and you lie down. Then the ‘counselor’ hits you.”
Living conditions in Gikondo are harsh. Former detainees said that up to 400 people could be held in one room, with many forced to sleep on the floor. There are insufficient supplies of food and water, poor sanitation and hygiene facilities, and inadequate access to medical treatment. Visits by family, friends, and lawyers are almost impossible.
Police corruption is common. With no judicial process governing arrests or detention at Gikondo, the easiest way to leave is to pay the police. Several former detainees told Human Rights Watch that there were opportunities for bribing their way out from the moment they were arrested.
Once released, many people resumed the activity that had led to their arrest, for lack of alternatives. As a result, they often found themselves back in Gikondo. Thirty-three of the 57 former detainees interviewed had been held there more than once — some, especially sex workers, more than five times. Several had lost count. “I continue to do the same work,” a female street vendor detained in March 2014 said. “I can’t stop working because it is a question of life and death… I would rather work than die of hunger.”
Human Rights Watch raised its concerns about human rights abuses at Gikondo with the Rwandan government on several occasions. In a written reply in November 2014, the justice minister stated that Gikondo is not a detention center, but exists to provide rehabilitation in the form of social emergency assistance and is a transit point to other rehabilitation centers. He wrote that it was “part of the general Rwandan philosophy of rehabilitation rather than unnecessary incarceration.” He refuted allegations of abuse and claimed the conditions at Gikondo were “conducive.” However, he said there was “currently no legal framework for [the center’s] administration.”
“This legal black hole has created an environment in which the poor are afforded no state protection and their basic rights are forgotten,” Bekele said. “The Rwandan government claims Gikondo is a rehabilitation center, but the former detainees we spoke to found no rehabilitation or assistance there — only suffering and humiliation.”
The Rwandan government should immediately close Gikondo, and the police should stop arbitrarily rounding up vulnerable and marginalized people. The government should instead provide them with assistance and support.
The government should release all detainees at Gikondo unless they are to be charged with a legitimate criminal offense. In that case, the authorities should promptly bring them before a judicial authority to be charged, and, if authorized by a court, transfer them to an official detention center. The authorities should also investigate the reports of widespread abuse and misconduct by the police at Gikondo and ensure that the officials responsible are suspended and prosecuted.
For many years, a significant proportion of detainees at Gikondo were children — in particular street children. In a positive decision in August 2014, the Kigali Mayor’s Office and the National Commission for Children announced that children would no longer be sent there. Adults, including women with small children or babies, are still being detained there, however.
“It was the right decision to stop sending children to Gikondo,” Bekele said. “Now the authorities should stop sending adults there too and end these unlawful detentions once and for all.”