Rwandan YouTube star jailed for ‘humiliating’ state officials

Dieudonne Niyonsenga, whose YouTube channel has more than 15 million views was sentenced to seven years in prison.

Rwanda President Paul Kagame has been criticised over human rights abuses but has received the support of Western donors for restoring stability in the years after the genocide [File: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images]

A Rwandan who used his YouTube channel to criticise the government has been sentenced to seven years in prison by a court in Kigali, amid a growing crackdown on dissidents in the tightly controlled East African nation.

Dieudonne Niyonsenga, whose YouTube channel Ishema TV had amassed more than 15 million views, was found guilty on Thursday on four charges including forgery, impersonation, and “humiliating” state officials.

“We are appealing this verdict against Niyonsenga with immediate effect. It is simply not right,” his lawyer Gatera Gashabana said on Friday.

The court found Niyonsenga to have committed the crimes intentionally and coupled the verdict with a fine of five million Rwandan francs ($4,900).

“Due to the adverse consequences that his crimes have had on Rwandan society, the court orders that Dieudonne Niyonsenga be immediately arrested and taken to serve his jail sentence,” the judge said in delivering the verdict.

Niyonsenga, better known by his YouTube persona Cyuma, which means “Iron”, was known for discussing human rights abuses on his channel.

Shortly after the verdict, the YouTube star said police had surrounded his home. Police and prison officials have not confirmed whether Niyonsenga has been taken into custody after being sentenced in absentia.

His jailing comes weeks after another high-profile critic with a YouTube following was sent to prison.

Last month, Rwandan authorities arrested six people including a journalist and members of an opposition party accused of publishing rumours allegedly intended to start an uprising.

Theoneste Nsengimana, who runs Umubavu TV – an online Youtube channel that often airs content critical of the government, was among those arrested.

Niyonsenga has already been arrested in April 2020, after broadcasting a series of videos accusing soldiers of serious abuses against slum dwellers during the enforcement of a strict coronavirus lockdown.

Shortly afterwards, he was charged with violating the lockdown and impersonating a journalist and sent to prison.

He was acquitted and released 11 months later but prosecutors appealed to a higher court.

The crackdown on YouTube creators has had a chilling effect in Rwanda, where independent media has been quashed and other forms of free expression are strictly monitored by the government.

Critics have accused President Paul Kagame’s government of human rights abuses although it has had support from Western donors for restoring stability in the years after the genocide, and boosting economic growth.

In March, Human Rights Watch voiced alarm about the crackdown. Kagame has denied accusations of abuse.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies