After nearly five years of stalled investigations, South African prosecutors have finally called an inquest into the brutal strangling death of Rwandan dissident Patrick Karegeya, a former close aide to Rwandan President Paul Kagame.
At least 30 witnesses are expected to testify, beginning in January, in an inquest that could lead to criminal charges, according to senior prosecutor Yusuf Baba, who opened the inquest on Thursday.
The murder of Col. Karegeya, strangled to death with a curtain rope in a luxury Johannesburg hotel room in 2013, was one of a wave of attacks on exiled Rwandan dissidents that has terrified Mr. Kagame’s opponents.
An investigation by The Globe and Mail in 2014 found evidence that the Rwandan government has organized assassination plots to target Rwanda’s exiled dissidents. Audio recordings obtained by The Globe revealed that the country’s director of military intelligence had sought to recruit a former Rwandan army major to assassinate Col. Karegeya and another prominent dissident, former army chief Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa.
After the murder of Col. Karegeya, the South African government expelled four Rwandan diplomats and accused them of “direct links” to the Karegeya assassination and other attempted murders and “organized criminal networks.”
Col. Karegeya disappeared on New Year’s Eve of 2013 after he went to meet a Rwandan businessman friend who was visiting Johannesburg. A day later, his body was found in room 905 of the Michelangelo Towers, an upscale hotel in Johannesburg’s ritzy Sandton neighbourhood. The Rwandan businessman vanished and reportedly flew back to Rwanda.
The Kagame government gloated openly over the dissident’s death, saying that Col. Karegeya had suffered the consequences of his “betrayal” of his country. “When you choose to be a dog, you die like a dog, and the cleaners will wipe away the trash,” Rwandan defence minister James Kabarebe said.
In the early months after the Karegeya murder, South African police investigators told his family members that they had completed their investigation and had gathered enough evidence for criminal charges – but then the case mysteriously stalled, according to Col. Karegeya’s nephew, David Batenga.
“Since then, everything went blank,” he said. The police eventually stopped answering his calls, even blocking his number and treating his calls as a joke, he told The Globe in an interview on Thursday.
“We waited and waited and we felt there was no light at the end of the tunnel,” he said.
There has long been a political dimension to the case. The Kagame government was furious at the expulsion of its diplomats from South Africa and retaliated with its own expulsion of South African diplomats. In recent years, the South African government has been anxious to patch up its relations with Mr. Kagame, one of the most powerful African leaders and currently the chairperson of the African Union.
The family of Col. Karegeya, meanwhile, was lobbying the South African prosecutors to keep pursuing the case. The family wrote letters to prosecutors, hired a lawyer, recruited help from an activist group and kept pushing for justice.
In a Johannesburg courtroom on Thursday, after the inquest was formally announced, Mr. Batenga said the decision was a relief to the family. “It’s been so long, far too long, and we hope and pray that something will come of this. It’s been four years, 10 months and one day. There’s a little light now. We can’t bring Patrick back but we can get some answers.”
Mr. Baba, the prosecutor, told the family members that it will be a detailed inquest. “I’m going to examine every aspect of this case,” he said. “I don’t intend rushing this, because this is a very sensitive case. I want every witness to testify.”
Describing the case to the judge who approved the inquest, Mr. Baba said the police had identified two foreign nationals as suspects in the murder, but both had left the country. “This is a very sensitive matter for international relations,” he said.
Rwandan dissidents still live under the threat of assassination today. Gen. Nyamwasa, the former army chief who now lives in exile in South Africa, has been the target of multiple assassination attempts and still lives under the protection of the South African government today, Mr. Batenga said.
Col. Karegeya, born in Uganda, joined Mr. Kagame as a leader of a rebel force fighting the Rwandan government in the early 1990s. When the force won power after the 1994 genocide, he became Rwanda’s intelligence chief from 1994 to 2004, but began to disagree with Mr. Kagame’s policies. He was jailed for “insubordination” and “disciplinary” infractions, and then fled the country.