On Wednesday January 10 2024, the Rwandan journalist Dieudonné Niyonsenga, alias Cyuma Hassan Dieudonné, appeared in court for the review of his trial, following which he was sentenced on appeal to 7 years in prison, a sentence that Reporters Without Borders denounced as “heavy, arbitrary and aberrant”.
Cyuma Hassan Dieudonné appeared weak and emaciated before the judge, and denounced the torture to which he is subjected in detention, according to the BBC, which reported the news.
On the verge of tears at the hearing, he said that he had been held for almost 3 years in solitary confinement in a damp hole, guarded by soldiers and beaten almost daily. He also said that he was losing his sight and hearing as a result of the beatings he had received.
The Voice of America reports that wounds were visible on his face and these were shown to the judge.
On the sidelines of the hearing, his father expressed his deep concern to the Voice of America, saying he feared for his son’s life “they are going to kill my son with sticks.”
According to the journalist’s lawyers, under the current circumstances it is not possible for their client to obtain justice, and the case has been postponed until 6 February 2024.
Cyuma Hassan Dieudonné, one of Rwanda’s leading journalists whose Youtube channel at the time had nearly 15,000,000 views, was arrested for the first time on 15 April 2020 for “failing to comply with the lockdown directives relating to COVID-19”.
His arrest came as part of a wave of arrests of journalists who had revealed a whole series of abuses committed by the Rwandan authorities during lockdown.
Less than two weeks before his arrest, Cyuma Hassan Dieudonné had posted testimonies on his YouTube channel from residents of the “Bannyahe” neighbourhood, which the city of Kigali had been trying to evict for several years, some claiming to have been beaten up, others tortured. Several women also claimed to have been raped by Rwandan soldiers while in lockdown.
The Rwandan authorities initially denied the allegations. Marie-Goretti Umutesi, the police spokeswoman in Kigali, called for “those who say such things” to be “hunted down”. But very quickly, following the scandal caused by the broadcasting of Cyuma Hassan Dieudonné’s reports, the Rwandan army acknowledged the facts, which it immediately attributed to “a few undisciplined soldiers”. In the aftermath, the army announced a public trial of the soldiers concerned, which has never taken place to date, and the soldiers involved have since been released.
It was against this backdrop that Cyuma Hassan Dieudonné was arrested for “failure to comply with confinement measures” before being detained for “falsifying documents”, “illegally exercising the profession of journalist” and “obstructing public works”.
On 11 March 2021, after nearly a year in pre-trial detention, the journalist was finally acquitted of all the charges against him, the trial judge ruling that none of the accusations against him were well-founded, before ordering his immediate release.
For the Committee to Protect Journalists, “Although it is good news that Dieudonné Niyonsenga and Fidèle Komezusenge (his driver) have been acquitted and released in Rwanda, they should never have been arrested, and it is a grave injustice that the courts have upheld unfounded charges against them for almost a year“.
After his release, Cyuma Hassan Dieudonné returned to work, believing he was safe from a return to prison despite the fact that the prosecution had meanwhile appealed against his acquittal.
Heavy, arbitrary and aberrant” sentence on appeal
On 11 November 2021, almost 9 months after his acquittal at first instance, Cyuma Hassan Dieudonné was found guilty of all the charges for which he had been acquitted, to which had been added the charge of having “humiliated State officials”, a charge that has not been punishable under Rwandan law since 2019. The appeal court sentenced him to 7 years in prison and ordered his immediate arrest.
Reporters Without Borders protested against the sentence, describing it as “heavy-handed, arbitrary and aberrant”, and in vain called on the Rwandan authorities to “stop hunting down journalists working online”. In the association’s view, the official charges against Cyuma only served to conceal what he was really accused of, namely “his investigations, his reporting and the critical line taken by his media”.
Since then Cyuma has been in detention and has requested a retrial. It was in this context that he appeared before the Court of Appeal on 10 January 2024, where he appeared weakened and emaciated, with facial injuries, before denouncing the inhumane conditions of his detention.
The case was postponed on the 6th of February 2024.