By Judi Rever
“He was beaten so bad that he sent a message to his family through an intermediary that he might not even recover from his injuries. During those beatings, he was told to plead guilty,” said an activist, who asked to remain anonymous.
“He decided to plead guilty because he’s tired of being beaten and he’s afraid of dying,” the activist said.
Mutabazi’s wife, contacted in Kampala, confirmed that her husband had been tortured but said she was afraid to elaborate further on the matter for fear of more reprisals. She and her two children are under guard at a UN safe house in Uganda.
“I am afraid he’ll be beaten some more,” the wife said, crying. “He thinks he will die next time.”
“I’m so worried,” she added, barely containing her composure on Friday after hearing the news. She said the international community has so far failed to help her husband, pointing out that neither the International Committee of the Red Cross, Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch has been given access to him.
In press photographs taken at his last court appearance on Monday, Mutabazi appeared gaunt and exhausted. Journalists, as well as diplomats from the Netherlands, United States and Britain attended the hearing, after which authorities determined that his military trial would be closed to observers and the public.
Mutabazi’s lawyer, Antoinette Mukamusoni, was not immediately available to confirm or deny whether her client had been physically coerced into changing his plea.
Mukamusoni was also not present during the military hearing on Friday when Mutabazi pleaded guilty to charges of fomenting rebellion.
Under duress, Mutabazi allegedly said he had contacts with the FDLR, a Hutu group in neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo formed from the remnants of Hutu militants accused of carrying out genocide against Tutsis in 1994.
The former Kagame bodyguard also admitted — after being tortured — that he had ties to the Rwandan National Congress (RNC), an opposition group that includes Lt. General Kayumba Nyamwasa, according to the activist.
But Mutabazi would not confess to attempting to kill Kagame, the source said.
Nyamwasa fell out with Kagame in 2010 and fled to South Africa, where he was shot by suspected Rwandan agents.
The RNC denies that Mutabazi had any ties with its group.
“Mutabazi has never spoken to us about the RNC. He was just someone desperate who was living in a safe house in Uganda,” said an RNC member who requested anonymity. “He never committed those crimes they are talking about,” he added.
Other members of Mutabazi’s family have also been arrested and charged with offenses, including his wife’s sister, his uncle and his younger brother.
A third brother in Uganda was outraged that their youngest brother Jackson, only 18 years old, had been kidnapped in Kampala and was now facing a military trial in Kigali.
“He is a student in Uganda. He has nothing to do with the Rwandan government at all. I can’t believe this is happening,” the older brother said.
Innocent Kalisa, another Tutsi refugee who had been living in Uganda, was also kidnapped and brought before the military court. Prior to the hearing, Kalisa had been missing for months, having last been seen getting into a car with a group of armed men in Kampala in August.
Mutabazi himself fled Rwanda in 2011 after being tortured at Camp Kami, a notorious military detention facility near the capital where prisoners are subjected to severe beatings, electric shocks and sensory deprivation, according to Amnesty.
When he first fled to Uganda, he spoke openly about alleged crimes committed by his former boss, and the Rwandan Defense Forces. But in recent months, the former escort had gone quiet.
On August 20, Rwandan agents and rogue Ugandan police stormed another safe house where Mutabazi and his family were staying. He was temporarily abducted until the Ugandan Prime Minister’s office was informed of the incident. His kidnappers were then forced to return Mutabazi to a police station.
Meanwhile, the United States on Friday called on Rwanda to ensure that Mutabazi gets a fair trial – and is protected and monitored in detention.
“The United States has urged the government of Rwanda to ensure that Mr. Joel Mutabazi’s rights are protected while he is in detention, and that he be provided due process, other fair trial protections, and continued access to adequate legal counsel,” said Charles Hawley, public affairs officer for the US embassy in Kigali.
“We have also urged the Rwandan government to continue to grant independent monitoring organizations access to Mr. Mutabazi during his detention,” Hawley added.