Primien Rukebesha, 72, will never forget the three days of November 2021. The father of YouTuber Niyonsenga Dieudonné commonly known as Cyuma Hassan, had gone to Mageragere, Kigali’s maximum security prison to deliver personal items to son.
On the evening of November 24, the elderly man was informed by son’s driver that the lawyer had been told by prison that no one else, other than direct family member, would be allowed at the prison.
It all started November 11, when an appeals court reversed the acquittal of Niyonsenga in favor of the Prosecution. He had been arrested in April 2020 for allegedly flouting COVID-19 stay-at-home order, plus other charges including impersonation – pretending to be a journalist.
Among the four charges also included humiliating government officials and disobeying lawful orders by security personnel.
He spent a year in jail, before a Kigali court acquitted him. While prosecution said he wasn’t journalist, Niyonsenga is a journalism graduate and has also previously worked for state broadcaster RBA.
The reason the prosecution gave was that he didn’t have a media card granted by the Rwanda Media Commission (RMC). It is a body established to be a media self-regulatory platform, but gets all its funding from government.
Within minutes following the reversal of the acquittal in a widely covered verdict, heavily armed police were at Niyonsenga’s home to arrest him. The drama was captured on CCTV footage from cameras installed at Niyonsenga’s house. He shared screenshots on social media before he was taken away.
For days, nobody knew the whereabouts of the YouTuber. While some social media reports said he was in Mageragere serving out his 7-year-term, others claimed he was in custody of security personnel undergoing intense interrogation.
A Voice of America (VOA) radio reporter gave regular updates on Twitter, but has since deleted the posts. There were also allegations that Niyonsenga was being forced to delete his YouTube channel, prompting calls by his supporters that all videos be downloaded for safe-keep.
It appears, during those days, Niyonsenga’s lawyer and driver attempted to deliver some items to Mageragere prison like clothing and cover for the cold. They were blocked, that only direct family would be allowed.
Under normal circumstances, Niyonsenga would have received these items without any hindrance. But since March last year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, visits to prisons are not allowed, except for lawyers – who also have to get permission from the Rwanda Bar Association.
On the morning of November 25, around 9am, Niyonsenga’s dad Rukebesha arrived at the prison from rural Gakenke district, northern Rwanda where the family lives. He came with a Holly Bible, clothing, cover and hygiene items like toothbrush.
In Niyonsenga’s vehicle were the driver and two other people, friends of Niyonsenga. At the prison’s first gate, Rukebesha and driver were allowed in to deliver the items as the other two remained in the car. The bedcover and Thermos Flask were not allowed, told by a prison officer that Cyuma had other similar items already. The father doubts he has them.
But then, all who had gone to the prison were detained, according to the elderly man, accused of taking photos.
Rukebesha says he was taken to an office at the prison for interrogation by a Prison Officer. “He was asking me why we had come to bring items and take photos. I told him I’m an old man who came from the village. I have no idea about photos. Please take the items to him and let me go back to my village in the north,” narrated Rukebesha.
They were interrogated up 5pm. Rukebesha says he confronted an officer asking to be let to go. “I told him, ‘If you are arresting us, tell us, otherwise let me go home’…the officer responded that our case was serious,” said the elderly man.
“We were interrogated by many different people, all of them repeating the same question over and over. It appears as if every prison guard interrogated us,” said Rukebesha.
“Amid all the hunger, since we had not eaten anything all day, RIB officials came around 8pm, handcuffed and took us away,” he said referring to the Rwanda Investigations Bureau.
The RIB interrogation took place at its Headquarters, went on till 11pm. The four had now been facing questions for more than 13 hours. They were taken to Kicukiro RIB Station where they spent the few hours of Thursday night.
The next day, Friday, around 4pm, Rukebesha and the driver were brought by RIB Officers back for interrogation at its HQ. There they met Niyonsenga’s lawyer Gatera Gashabana for the first time.
“The RIB Officers were asking me about a camera we allegedly used to take photos. I couldn’t understand why I was being asked about photos that I had no idea about. I asked them whether the camera was held by all of the four of us,” said Rukebesha.
“RIB officials were telling me that I conspired with the others to take photos. But I didn’t know what photos they were talking about. I have a small old model Nokia phone which doesn’t take photos. I don’t know which photos they were referring to, because they never showed me any photos.”
The old man says another charge he was interrogated about, undermining state authority, which is referred to in Kinyarwanda as ‘KWANGISHA ABATURAGE UBUYOBOZI BURIHO. It is a common charge slammed on opposition politicians and journalists.
The four were held at Kicukiro RIB station, regularly going for interrogation. The old man says as a result of his arrest, the stomach ulcers he suffers from have aggravated because he was being served with maize-beans mixture which he couldn’t manage to eat.
“The other people in the cell were tormenting me that I was to find my son at Mageragere prison,” said Niyonsenga’s dad.
The four suspects were released on Saturday around 7pm. They were told they should return to RIB on Monday to pick their personal items. Rukebesha had left there his national ID and the small Nokia phone.
“My son’s lawyer told me he is fine in Mageragere. I can only hope so. I didn’t get any other news about him,” he told The Chronicles.
Why did you bring him the Bible?, Our writer asks; “We are a prayerful family,” Mzee Rukebesha responded. “I wanted him to pray to the Holy Mary to keep him strong during these difficult times. The Bible was to keep him company, to pray for God’s help.”
While the father was going through his own ordeal, it emerged the charge of “humiliating government officials”, among which Niyonsenga was convicted and sent to jail, doesn’t exist on Rwanda’s law books.
The prosecutor general’s office, humiliatingly issued statement that it had also found the charge had been struck off the books in 2019.