David Batenga suspected something was wrong when he was unable to get hold of his uncle, renowned Rwandan dissident and former chief of intelligence Colonel Patrick Karegeya, for more than 24 hours on 1 January 2014.
“I was starting to get worried … You sent him a message, within five minutes he always responded. His phones were always accessible. Even an hour without contacting me, that’s ... never heard of,” Batenga said.
After determining his uncle was checked in at the Michelangelo Hotel in Sandton, Johannesburg, staff advised Batenga they could access the room only in the presence of the police, despite Batenga’s growing distress.
Police entered the suite and found Karegeya’s body in the room. “I sat for 45 minutes, almost an hour. So what they did, the cops came, they used the stairs, they went to the room, they manned the scene, everything was done. After, only after, the lady from the reception came and sat with me … When she told me, it was hard. I was hysterical, you can imagine,” Batenga said.
Batenga believes his uncle was killed because he was an outspoken critic of Rwandan President Paul Kagame and his government. Less than two weeks after Karegeya’s death, the BBC quoted Kagame as saying: “You can’t betray Rwanda and not get punished for it. Anyone, even those still alive, will reap the consequences. Anyone. It is a matter of time.”
The Randburg Magistrate’s Court has set down January 2019 for the inquest into Karegeya’s death, with prosecutors lining up more than 30 witnesses for the hearing, including Batenga and Karegeya’s wife, who has been living in the United States after she fled Johannesburg with her children over safety concerns before the murder.
Karegeya, who used to be a supporter of Kagame, became disillusioned with the Rwandan president’s rule after he was jailed twice for spurious charges of insubordination. Karegeya was stripped of his rank of colonel in 2006 and went into exile in South Africa the following year. With a number of prominent critics of Kagame, he founded the exiled opposition party the Rwanda National Congress in 2010.
Earlier this month, the Constitutional Court heard an application by Alex Ruta, a former Rwandan intelligence officer who was sent to South Africa to assassinate members of the Rwanda National Congress, not to be deported to Rwanda. Ruta refused to carry out his mission when he realised it amounted to assassination, and instead approached the Hawks with the details of his assignment.
Assassinations and attempted hits on critics of Kagame in South Africa are nothing new, with dissidents still having to look over their shoulders. Former army chief General Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa has survived a number of assassination attempts – six people faced trial in South Africa for trying to kill him in 2010. The latest attempt on his life came a few months after Karegeya was killed. For Batenga, living in paranoia has become an “exhausting lifestyle”.
He said despite the delays in the case, the family was happy a court date had been set. “It is the first step. We are excited about it. Obviously it resonates with hope that it is coming right … though we hold a view that this inquest is not even necessary. Investigations are done and complete. We know who did this, so it is not a case of wondering … We have evidence, we have reports. How it goes in the inquest, we don’t know, but we are still excited,” he said.
It was the period of silence after Karegeya’s death, with all the family’s unanswered questions, that bothered Batenga. “When it dies off, that is when it is even more painful. When it’s in court, I don’t mind how tedious and exhaustive it can get, but when it dies off and you phone people and they don’t answer or they block you…” he trailed off.
But Batenga, like the uncle who raised him and saw him through school, will remain critical of Kagame’s government until Rwanda becomes safe for its leader’s political opponents. “Always, you can never stop,” Batenga said defiantly. “For how long can you detach yourself from who you are? It’s not about many deaths or many assassinations. It’s a view that I hold and many other Rwandans who live outside the borders to have access to their own country.”
Frank Ntwali, an executive member of the Rwanda National Congress, said he was hopeful the outcome of the inquest would shed light on the Rwandan government’s “impunity”.
“In Rwanda, they have painted a very fake narrative of a government that is progressive, that is respecting human rights, that is a model of development, yet it is the worst regime in east and central Africa in terms of … human rights,” he said. “It is the only government that follows its own opposition and kills them outside the country.”
He said Karegeya’s death was just one of “endless assassinations” by the Rwandan government. “It should be on record that Patrick [Karegeya] ... was assassinated by the government of Rwanda … That should be very clear to the whole world.”
Ntwali said “measures should be taken against this rogue government”, adding that the Rwanda National Congress would seek further justice for the family once the inquest had been finalised. “We want to hold the government of Rwanda accountable, but we all know that the government ... does not care about relations with other countries,” he said.