Leonile Gasengayire, 30, is now a free young woman. The High Court International Crimes Chamber based in Nyanza district on January 23 acquitted her and 3 others, all of whom have been followers of Ingabire Victoire Umuhoza who recently founded a new political organization DALFA Umurinzi.
On the evening of the same day of being acquitted, Gasengayire was freed and walked out of prison where she had called home since September 6, 2017. If anything, the detention has emboldened her even more.
The day Gasengayire was arrested was a Wednesday. Police and plainclothed agents stormed a house in which she lived with Boniface Twagirimana who was vice president of FDU Inkingi, Ingabire deputy while she herself was in prison. Gasengayire was deputy party treasurer and took food daily for Ingabire in prison.
The police spent hours in the house searching for what they did not say. Gasengayire was taken to Remera police station, then later at 10pm moved to Kimihurura.
There, Gasengayire was kept in police cell from Wednesday until Sunday when she was told why she had been arrested. “No one touched me or tortured me but I had also refused to eat because how could I be held without anyone telling me why,” she narrates.
Gasengayire was told in presence of a lawyer that she was facing three charges; forming and belonging to armed group, attempting to remove government by force of arms, and terrorism – all very serious crimes if convicted.
The young woman says she stayed for 21 days at Kimihurura. However, from day of arrest to September 15, she was handcuffed at all times day and night, which were removed only when going to take a shower.
She narrates: “I was arrested on September 6 and was allowed to take my first shower on September 9. I changed my clothes for first time on September 20 when I appeared in court for bail hearing.”
“Even so, they brought me clothes. They may have felt embarrassed because I always complained that even if am a detainee, I have right to be looked after. So they gave me clothes for court appearance.”
“I personally was never tortured while in police detention, apart from keeping me handcuffed all that time.”
Gasengayire was moved on September 27 to maximum security jail known as “1930” in Kigali central. It is no longer a jail, and recently government announced the site had been given to Catholic Church to build a cathedral.
After moving to prison, battle for bail and appeals began, which lasted months. The “1930” prison was closed in July 2018, and Gasengayire with others moved to the new Mageragere prison, outside Kigali city.
While in 1930 prison, Gasengayire says whenever she had a visitor, there was a “CID officer called Bizimana Jean Claude, who was always there listening to everything we discussed”. This same person is the one who was in charge of Ingabire while she was in prison, according to Gasengayire.
She said: “In this 1930 jail, I was kept in isolation all night from other inmates. During day, I stayed in a section with 6 people. I spent the day with them, and then I was taken to my isolation till morning 6:30am.”
“However, during my appeals process in court for bail, I complained in court and they started putting all of us the 6 in isolation so that it didn’t appear like it was done to me alone.”
The substantive trial began in July 2018, nearly a year after she was arrested. The trial began from a court in Kigali, but was eventually transferred to the High Court chamber in Nyanza district.
Gasengayire charged together with Boniface Twagirimana the party vice president, along with colleagues Fabien Twagirayasu, Gratien Nsabiyaremye, Evode Mbarushimana, Venant Abayisenga, Theophile Ntirutwa, Papias Ndayisenga (Ndayishimiye), Norbert Mfitamahoro, Athanase Kanyarukiko and Ernest Nkiko.
These were all arrested at different times and places between late 2016 and early 2017.
On September 14, 2018, Ingabire was given Presidential clemency and freed. In October, news emerged from the Rwanda Correctional Services (RCS) that Twagirimana the FDU party vice president had escaped from Mageragere prison. Ingabire and her followers claim he was kidnapped from jail. He has never been seen or heard from again.
Another incident happened in Mageragere prison which Gasengayire also remembers vividly. In June last year 2019, while she had been moved to Muhanga prison to prepare for her trial at the High Court chamber, a friend of hers back in Mageragere was severely tortured.
Gasengayire narrates: “You know prison is like a school. So this girl was my best friend and we were always together. While I was in Muhanga prison, she was taken and canned 304 lashes. They were asking her what we discussed. She reached a point where she never felt any pain. The prisoners who came to Muhanga told me. I also found out when I returned to Mageragere prison. For me I was never tortured.”
At Mageragere prison women wing, there is a prison warder called Karigirwa Deborah, whom Gasengayire reveals is a nightmare to inmates. “There is a place in Mageragere called ‘station y’umutekano’ where once you know you are being taken there, you know you are going for death. Deborah’s job is to torture people.”
“Can you imagine a mother with a baby being beaten before the baby. Even if she has committed a grave crime, beating her before the baby is imparting rage and hate in the baby. When the baby goes out of prison, they will always see prison guards as bad people.”
The RCS has vehemently dismissed reports of torture in prisons, which has also been investigated by Parliament. The lawmakers said in their report late last year that they had been assured by RCS and the Justice ministry that no torture was happening in jails.
Reports also emerged last year that food given to inmates in Mageragere prison was poorly prepared. Some reports said the con-beans meals (impungure) served, was filled with stones. Gasengayire says the food has no problem. “I didn’t experience such cases of bad food. It was rare,” she said.
However, Gasengayire points out that there is a problem of medical care in Mageragere prison. Transfers have reduced so much for inmates from the prison to hospitals outside for better treatment, and that it all began with arrival of current Mageragere prison director.
Gasengayire is no stranger to detentions. Her troubles began in 2012, then at the height of Ingabire’s political activities and legal battles. Gasengayire says she was in jail in 2012, then 2014, and then 2016 for several months. The same came with the September 2017 arrest, until acquittal.
When Gasengayire was released in early 2017, director of Muhanga prison at the time apparently told her: “Next time we will not arrest you, we will kill you.”
Gasengayire says: “After you are born, the next step is dying. The bad thing is dying when you have not done anything meaningful in life. If only people can commit to do something heroic to save one or 3 people, even if you die, it is worth it.”
“…..God will not ask you who wronged you, HE will ask of what use you were in society.”
How and why did Gasengayire chose to enter politics? “I began feeling concerned about how people in my village were being treated. At that time, Nyakatsi (grass-thatched houses) were being erased. Some people got new houses, others not. People’s land was taken with no compensation or alternative given, and they were left with no place to find food.”
“Then came time when I studied part of my secondary in French, then we shifted to English without any preparation. We studied very poorly. Imagine having people who can neither express themselves in French nor English.”
Gasengayire says she is not seeking anything more than simply being able to “express myself without fear”.
“Imagine I have been in prison for nearly 3 years. If it was a democratic country, after the Judge finding me innocent, he would have calculated everything, my youth, that I have lost so far and ordered for my compensation. But that was not done.”