Lt Joel Mutabazi, whose case is directly linked to the current Rwanda-Uganda fallout, this Tuesday afternoon appeared before the Court of Appeal, to contest his life sentence.
Appearing in his military uniform and rank, Mutabazi was with 13 other people, with whom they were jailed in October 2014 by a military court martial.
Mutabazi, an elite commando, found guilty on 8 counts including leading a plot to assassinate his former boss President Paul Kagame. Other charges were terrorism, treason, setting up armed group, spreading rumours, murder and illegal possession of fire arms. He was also to be demoted to no rank.
In court today, amid tight security, Mutabazi first filed an application for bail. He told court that he is in bad health as result of the poor conditions in which he is being kept.
Through his renowned lawyer Antoinnette Mukamusoni, Lt Mutabazi says he was starving as he is not getting enough to eat – an unprecedented issue that may be coming before a Rwandan court for the first time ever.
He said he is only fed on “Kawunga” (maize dough), maize and beans.
The Israeli trained commando said his sight has deteriorated significantly and is unable to see well. He also said he is suffering from hypertension and hepatitis.
“I no longer see,” said Lt Mutabazi, prompting interruption from the presiding judge Kalimunda Muyoboke who queried: “Aren’t you seeing now?”, to which Mutabazi responded in a seemingly desperate tonne: “I can no longer see like I used to.”
Mutabazi also told the Appeals court that he is unable to afford Rwf 85,000 ($90) to buy spectacles for his sight.
Mutabazi said he is being incarcerated in a cell at the Kanombe military barracks on the outskirts of Kigali, instead of the military jail at Mulindi, which is also in Kigali but farther away.
He said: “I am kept in a room of 1 meter by 1.80m with no window. It is full of cameras. You go through four doors to get to the room where am kept. I live in this tiny room with my toilet. I use a small bucket of Omo soap the whole day. Even when I have diarrhea, the bucket stays in my room from 6am to 6pm. Not even air can enter my room.”
Mutabazi claims that whenever he is taken to hospital, he is not allowed to speak to the doctor. It is the soldiers escorting him who speak.
Defense attorney Mukamusoni also weighed in with her own concerns, telling court that she doesn’t get privacy when visiting her client. The room is full of computers, she said, adding that she often resorts to singing gospel hymns rather than talk about the case as everything could be leaking to the state.
“Only God knows what Joel is living through,” Mukamusoni.
Military prosecutors vehemently opposed Mutabazi’s bail application saying since he was sentenced to more than five years, that disqualifies him from provisional release.
On the issue of alleged poor feeding for Mutabazi, the military prosecutor retorted: “Joel is a soldier who is aware of the years spent eating maize. Actually, today he has a much better diet than what we used to eat when we were in the forests [during liberation war].”
The prosecutor said that Mutabazi is regularly treated at the Rwanda Military Hospital, a top facility nationally.
Commenting on the case where Mutabazi claimed he was unable to raise money for spectacles, the prosecutor said Mutabazi’s financial problems will easily be cleared by the Defence Ministry the moment he notifies them.
During the session, Mutabazi repeatedly referred to God and biblical messages, in what seemed like deliberate attempt to win the court’s sympathy.
The courtroom was occupied by the green-clad Mutabazi co-accused, many soldiers and journalists. There was less than a handful of other people.
Mutabazi was reportedly kidnapped from Uganda, where he had been organising rebellion with the dissident Rwanda National Congress (RNC) led by ex-army chief Gen Kayumba Nyamwasa.
All the accused were recruits or mobilizers for RNC.
Immediately after Mutabazi’s case opened and his eventual conviction, signs began emerging of souring relations between Uganda and Rwanda governments.
Several senior police and military officials are also currently facing prosecution in Uganda for taking part in Mutabazi’s kidnap and transfer to Rwanda.
The Court of Appeal will decide on Mutabazi’s bail on June 21.