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Rwanda Classified

“Clandestine activities” and suspicious deaths strain Belgium-Rwanda relations

Rwanda’s conduct, both in its region and in Belgium, is causing friction with its former colonial power. The murky murder of a Rwandan opposition figure, the deaths of two Belgians in South Africa, and “clandestine activities” against Rwandan diaspora in Belgium are among the reasons Brussels is taking a firmer stance against Kigali.

(Visual: Mélody Da Fonseca)

Key findings
  • The suspicious deaths of two Belgian citizens and the murder of a former Rwandan intelligence chief in South Africa led to Brussels refusing the accreditation of a Rwandan ambassador.
  • According to Belgian government sources, the Rwandan Embassy is supervising a network of agents conducting “actions against the Rwandan diaspora in Belgium—from active monitoring to acts of violence.”
  • Paul Rusesabagina, subject of the film “Hotel Rwanda,” accuses the Rwandan embassy of having orchestrated an assassination plot against him in Belgium. He told Forbidden Stories he was forced to flee Europe with his family.

By Karine Pfenniger

May 28, 2024

With the participation of Ghizlane Kounda (RTBF), Benoît Feyt (RTBF), Kristof Clerix (Knack), Lotte Lambrecht (Knack), Joël Matriche (Le Soir), Louis Colart (Le Soir), Samuel Baker Byansi (M28 Investigates).

In October 2023, a few months before assuming his role as head of the Belgian military intelligence services (GISS), Major General Stéphane Dutron arrived in Kigali. He was there to visit his Rwandan counterparts, including the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS).

According to him, he had—among other topics—a message to convey: while it’s important for GISS to maintain good working relationships with foreign partners, it must also monitor the activities of foreign services on Belgian soil. In other words, with Rwanda: “We cannot erase the past, but if the obstacles are removed, nothing will stand in the way of a constructive relationship,” Stéphane Dutron himself paraphrased.

The head of GISS only referred to Rwanda’s activities in Belgium. But in the same year that Rwanda and its former colonial power, Belgium, remember the 30th anniversary of the Tutsi genocide committed by Hutu extremists—with the passivity of several Western states, including Belgium and France— Kigali’s actions abroad are weighing on diplomatic relations between the two countries.

Deaths in South Africa

In June 2018, a maid discovered the body of the 27-year-old Thomas Ngeze in a busy Johannesburg backpackers on the seventh floor. The Belgian-Rwandan was hung from a shower curtain rail with a bath towel, wearing only underwear. A stool lay on the floor beneath his feet. It was just after midday.

Having arrived in Belgium after fleeing Rwanda in 1994, Ngeze was an international legal expert and was visiting South Africa at the time. He was also the son of Hassan Ngeze, who was sentenced to 35 years in prison in 2007 by a court of Appeal of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) for his involvement in the genocide.

A month after the young man’s body was discovered, Belgian lawyer Pieter-Jan Staelens—who was investigating Ngeze’s death on behalf of his family—was found dead. He was burned in his car in the town of Hermanus, about a hundred kilometers from Cape Town. 

Judicial investigations were opened in both South Africa and Belgium. South African police refers to the two deaths as suicides. Despite no concrete evidence to suggest homicide at this stage, members of the two families have little doubt that Rwanda murdered their relatives.

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In both countries, several well-informed sources reject the suicide hypothesis. A series of elements reported by RTBF, a partner of the Rwanda Classified project, seem to support these doubts.

For instance, the person who identified Ngeze’s body reportedly disappeared soon after, according to Etienne Mutabazi—a refugee in South Africa and secretary general of the Rwandan opposition party in exile, Rwanda National Congress (RNC). “I know the person [who identified the body] well,” Mutabazi told RTBF. ”After he identified the body, I tried to talk to him about it, but he said he couldn’t talk about it, he didn’t want to talk about it, and then he disappeared.”

According to several sources, Ngeze had been approached by the Kigali regime. 

“When the government of Rwanda calls you to go to Rwanda… when you go there, you agree to work with them,” said Daniel Nsengimana, a Rwandan refugee in South Africa who had been in contact with Ngeze for several years. “If you disagree, it’s either they kill you there or they follow you to kill you where you’re going. Because you already know their secrets.”

According to Nsengimana, Ngeze’s father’s participation in the 1994 genocide could have been another motive for the alleged murder.

“You believe that he commit suicide?” asked Nsengimana. “I don’t. It’s very difficult for a young person to kill himself… How do you hang yourself when you have a girlfriend? He’s not the first Rwandan person—actually, young man—to be killed here in South Africa.”

First page of the docket of South African investigation into the death of Thomas Ngeze. (Credit: RTBF)

Regarding Staelens’ death, a neighbor—who witnessed the fire and spoke to RBTF—saw a car leaving the scene: “I noticed a black Audi that was driving slow. It was driving slowly, then it came back. The driver didn’t stop. I don’t remember the brand. It was an African woman… maybe from Kenya.” 

The neighbor, who tried to save the Belgian lawyer from the fire, also said the engine couldn’t have burned on its own: “A diesel motor cannot burn like that. It cannot go up in flames. So someone must have put a bomb or something.”

Shortly after his death, Staelens’ computers were stolen during a burglary at his home in South Africa.

The Belgian response

A Belgian federal prosecutor has taken up the case. Former federal prosecutor, Frédéric Van Leeuw—who was in office until April 1, 2024—traveled to South Africa to conduct an investigation. In an interview with RTBF when he was still the federal prosecutor, Van Leeuw emphasized the prosecutor’s office only opens investigations based on criminal suspicions, without going into further details.

Regarding the potential involvement of the Rwandan regime, Van Leeuw said, “it’s part of the case. We’ll see what the case reveals. It’s a case we have obviously taken very seriously.”

When approached by the Rwanda Classified consortium, the South African National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) declined to comment on the ongoing investigation—while specifying that it is “at an advanced stage.”

Despite no proof of homicide or involvement of Rwanda in the deaths of the two Belgians in South Africa at this stage, the episode has affected diplomatic relations between Belgium and Rwanda.

Vincent Karega, Rwandan Ambassador to South Africa, was in office at the time of the two men’s deaths and when former NISS chief, Patrick Karegeya was found strangled to death in a Johannesburg hotel room in 2014. Karegeya had become a political opponent in exile.

When Kigali sought to appoint Karega as ambassador to Belgium in 2023, Brussels refused to accredit him. According to information gathered in this investigation, the deaths of the two Belgians and the murder of Karegeya—as well as other elements, such as criticism of Belgium on Twitter—contributed to this decision.

Paul Rusesabagina: “No one can silence me”
Human rights activist Paul Rusesabagina, portrayed as a hero in the movie “Hotel Rwanda,” gave one of...

“We believe that this person could not perform his duties with the necessary calm to maintain good relations between our two countries,” Belgian Foreign Minister Hadja Lahbib told RTBF, specifying that Belgium and South Africa maintain “good relations.”

Rwandan government spokeswoman, Yolande Makolo, vehemently denied any involvement of Karega in the deaths of Ngeze and Staelens.

“These are things that have nothing to do with each other. I don’t know what Ambassador Karega has to do with that. South Africa is a big country… It’s a ridiculous accusation,” said Makolo. “He has never been convicted of any crime. He left South Africa honorably.” The Rwandan government denies any involvement in the deaths of Ngeze, Staelens and Karegeya.

“What does my presence in South Africa have to do with [the] death [of Thomas Ngeze and Pieter-Jan Staelens]?” responded Karega in WhatsApp messages to RTBF’s questions. “In what and how am I or is Rwanda, my country, responsible for their deaths? How does the death of [Patrick] Karegeya in South Africa concern Belgium and specifically my accreditation in Belgium?… If Belgium ever has reasonable facts and evidence linking my functions and my stay in South Africa to the death of the individuals cited above, it is welcome to bring these facts to the table and discuss them with the Rwandan government,” Karega said.

As of today, the position of Rwandan ambassador to Belgium remains vacant. In a March interview with Jeune Afrique magazine, President Paul Kagame stated that Rwanda would not propose another candidate.

Pieter-Jan Staelens’ car. (Credit: RTBF)

The embassy at the center of repression

The Rwandan embassy in Belgium—a country around 30,000 Rwandans call home—seems to be right at the heart of its transnational repression strategy. According to our information, the Rwandan embassy in Belgium coordinates a network of agents in charge of surveilling and intimidating the diaspora, sometimes with the use of violence.

According to Belgian government sources, Rwanda has resorted to “active monitoring” and “acts of violence” against the Rwandan diaspora in Belgium. These activities, as well as “efforts to influence Belgian political and public opinion,” constitute “unacceptable” activities, even if Rwanda may have legitimate objectives, such as combating denialism, hate speech, and the funding of armed groups. The GISS considers that a “paranoia” within the diaspora could lead its members to erroneously attribute deaths to the activities of Rwandan intelligence.

In 2022, the then Belgian Minister of Justice, Vincent Van Quickenborne, responded to a parliamentary question and said the Belgian State Security (VSSE) had no proof of the presence of Rwandan death squads in Belgium. According to our information, this is still the case.

Nevertheless, the embassy’s activities seem to have irritated local authorities. In 2023, in consultation with Foreign Affairs and the intelligence services, Rwandan diplomats have allegedly been contacted regarding interference activities in Belgium. The move allegedly led to a decrease in actions directed against the diaspora.

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Questioned by the consortium, the GISS declared it is continuing to monitor Rwanda’s intelligence activities, in cooperation with State Security and with counterparts from third countries, adding that it is prepared to intervene “if necessary.” “A better relationship with Rwanda would be welcome and we are working on it. This of course goes hand in hand with respect for sovereignty and the certainty that partners refrain from taking measures that could compromise these relations,” GISS wrote. 

Stéphane Dutron, the commander of the GISS, agrees: “We are cautiously positive about what we have observed since [the visit to Kigali in 2023] on our national territory. The message seems to have come across clearly.”

Rwandan embassy in Belgium. (Credit: Facebook / Rwandan embassy in Belgium)

The Rwandan Embassy in Brussels brings back bad memories for Paul Rusesabagina, an activist known for saving over a thousand people from the genocide by sheltering them in the hotel he managed in Kigal—the story that inspired the film “Hotel Rwanda.”

Rusesabagina was arrested by Rwanda in 2020—his family recalls this incident as a kidnapping—before being released in 2023 (read his interview here).

In 2018, while residing in Belgium, he filed a death threat complaint with the police. He claimed, among other things, to have been informed that three individuals had been sent by Rwanda to kill him.

The complaint, which the consortium has seen but could not independently verify, reads: “Two of them… report to the Rwandan embassy here in Brussels… The person receiving the reports works at the Rwandan embassy and is named Gustave, he is an agent of the DMI [former acronym for Rwandan Military Intelligence, now DID].”

According to our information, the investigation did not identify any potential perpetrators and the case was closed.

According to Rusesabagina, the Rwandan Ambassador even relocated his home behind his family home in Kraainem, a suburb of Brussels. “Is that not suspicious? To go and live behind somebody you are hunting for. It’s ridiculous,” Rusesabagina said.

The Rwandan embassy in Belgium did not answer our questions.

Besides the threats against him, Rusesabagina claims to have been the victim of a suspicious road accident and four burglaries, during which only documents in Kinyarwanda (the main language spoken in Rwanda) were stolen. “According to what we have seen, the Belgian government has been reluctant to tell those spies, those people who have come to kill, that ‘either you stop or leave our country.’”

All these incidents have pushed his family to leave Belgium. Rusesabagina, a Belgian citizen, now lives in the United States.

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