Kagame locks up poor Rwandans not to ‘dirty’ Kigali city

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There is a dirty secret behind the sparkling veneer of Rwanda’s capital, Kigali. Local residents call it Kwa Kabuga, and government officials call it the Gikondo Transit Center. Whatever name is used, the reality is the same. It’s a place where Kigali’s “undesirables” – street vendors, sex workers, homeless people and beggars – are taken, beaten and arbitrarily detained. Their offense, they are told, is they make the city look dirty.

Gikondo Transit Center is an unofficial detention center managed by the City of Kigali and run by the police. It is an old factory in the Gikondo residential neighbourhood, surrounded by high, red brick walls. It sometimes houses up to 800 detainees, often in cramped and desperate conditions without adequate food, drinking water or basic sanitation. Until mid-2014, many street children were also detained there.

The police regularly round up those “dirtying” the city. There is no due process and no legal basis for their arrest or detention. Detainees are not taken before a judicial official nor are they charged with any crimes. How long they are deprived of their liberty is completely arbitrary. Some stay for several days, others for several months. Many are ordered to leave the capital when they are released, though few do since economic opportunities are scarce away from Kigali.

One of those arrested, Rose (not her real name), is poor. She sells bags, t-shirts and belts at Nyabugogo bus terminal to earn a bit of money to survive. In an interview with Human Rights Watch in March, she described how she had been arrested four times over the past two years and taken to Gikondo. During her most recent detention, she was kept there for two weeks.

Her treatment in Gikondo was harsh. Like many others who spoke to Human Rights Watch, Rose was beaten. Ill-treatment of detainees is commonplace at Gikondo – either by the police or by other detainees known as “counsellors,” acting on police orders or with their assent. Detainees said they were beaten for actions as trivial as talking too loudly or not standing in line to use the toilet. Mothers with babies or small children are beaten if their child defecates on the floor.
Rose was beaten for having no money. “They [the counsellors] checked me everywhere for money when I arrived,” she told Human Rights Watch. “But I did not have any, so they beat me on my face and on my back.”

Rose was released from Gikondo in a manner as arbitrary as her arrest. “One day they just decided some of us had been there long enough and they let us go,” she said. As she left, a policeman said to her, “You are tarnishing the city. Why don’t you just leave the streets?” She wept as she told Human Rights Watch, “The government forgets that not everyone has the money to do business as they want us to. Many of us are struggling. If I had the means, I would leave this life of selling things on the streets.”

The Rwandan government says that Gikondo is a rehabilitation center staffed with counsellors and healthcare workers, that it provides social emergency assistance and that it acts as a transit point to other rehabilitation centers. But former detainees told us that access to medical treatment at Gikondo is sporadic and rehabilitation support non-existent.

After Human Rights Watch published a report on Gikondo on September 24 and called for it to be closed, the mayor of Kigali, Fidèle Ndayisaba, said Human Rights Watch had never visited Gikondo. Perhaps he had forgotten that Human Rights Watch officially requested authorization to visit the center from his office several times. None of our requests were granted.

The detentions in Gikondo Transit Center violate both Rwandan and international law. The Rwandan government should immediately close the center, investigate cases of unlawful detention and other abuses, and release all detainees there, unless they are to be charged with a legitimate criminal offense – in which case they should be brought before a judicial official and transferred to an official detention center.

Being poor is not a crime. Economically vulnerable people should be assisted through social protection programs, education and vocational training, not through arbitrary detention and ill-treatment. Rose’s description of Gikondo says it all. “That place is an injustice.”

Anneke Van Woudenberg, the author, is deputy Africa editor at Human Rights Watch.