Brig Muhoozi denies role in Rwandan refugee arrest

Sky Hotel in Naalya, a Kampala suburb where Lt Joel Mutabazi (inset) was staying together with his family. Photo by Stephen Wandera.

Ugandan guards foiled the fugitive’s first attempt to escape through a church last Friday morning. There was pandemonium at Sky Hotel when he slipped away through the round-the-clock security net in the evening, and guests were marooned on the tarmac in the hotel car park during a menacing search. Sunday Monitor’s Tabu Butagira and Risdel Kasasira bring you the inside story.

Special Forces commander, Brig Muhoozi Kainerugaba, has said he was not involved in the arrest and extradition of Lt Joel Mutabazi, a former bodyguard to Rwandan President Paul Kagame, as government separately admitted his hand-over was a mistake.

“The Brigadier had absolutely no knowledge of that [arrest],” the military elite unit’s Spokeperson Chris Magezi said on Thursday. “As far as he is concerned, the police were doing their work and he was not involved.”

The First Son was responding to enquiries from this newspaper on reports that Rwanda first contacted him several weeks ago; complaining that Lt Mutabazi exploited security lapses at the hotel in Kampala where he stayed to meet Rwandan dissidents, including those based in South Africa.

Sources that preferred anonymity owing to the sensitivity of the matter, said Brig Muhoozi was also tipped that the ex-Kagame escort was planning to flee, and the First Son alerted Kampala Metropolitan commander Andrew Kaweesi.

Bodyguards withdrawn
Police subsequently withdrew a pair of VIPPU guards it had earlier deployed to guard Lt Mutabazi at Sky Hotel in Naalya, a city suburb, replacing them with a new batch that reportedly tightened security measures and access to the fugitive.

It emerged on Thursday that the Lieutenant was intercepted at Kamengo in Mpigi district on Masaka Road last Friday, and not Saturday, as earlier reported in a sting operation commanded by Police crime intelligence chief, Mr Joel Aguma, suspended a couple of days ago over his handling of the matter.

Rwanda’s Ambassador to Uganda, Maj Gen Frank Mugambage was unable to speak on the fate of Lt Mutabazi and whether Rwandan security officials were involved in his arrest, saying he was driving back from Kigali. Other reports suggested it is Rwanda that tipped Ugandan security about Mutabazi’s escape from Sky Hotel.

Addressing a press conference on Thursday, Disaster Preparedness and Refugees minister Hillary Onek said Mr Aguma, who returned to the country last month from a one-year senior police officers’ course in Rwanda, effected Mutabazi’s arrest “in an error of judgment and misinterpretation of the international arrest warrant.”

Regretful act
“Regretfully, [he] handed him over to the government of Rwanda officials. This was a clear act of indiscipline against the police code of conduct and the established legal procedure of extradition of fugitives and wanted criminals,” he said, adding: “[The] government of Uganda requests the government of Rwanda to accord Lt Joel Mutabazi an open and fair trial on the alleged crimes.”

The Kagame government, which accuses the run-away presidential guard commando of murder, terrorism, armed robbery and treason, has wanted to lay its hands on him as early as October 2011 when he fled to Uganda.

In 2012, unknown gunmen sprayed Lt Mutabazi’s house in Kasangati in Wakiso district with bullets, but he managed to escape. In August, this year, he was kidnapped, forced into an unmarked car, but was rescued en-route to Rwanda following intervention by high-level Ugandan authorities and strong UN condemnation.

Minister Onek told Thursday’s press conference at the Uganda Media Centre attended by Interpol director Assan Kasingye and Uganda police’s Kaweesi, that the fugitive’s unexpected handover to Rwanda, after unexplained attempts on his life in Kampala recorded by police, was an “isolated incident”.

“The government of Uganda would like to assure the general public, the international community and the refugees in particular that this is an isolated incident that will not affect its commitment to the principles of the UN convention and protocol relating to the status of refugees, the OAU convention governing the specific aspects of the refugee problem in Africa and the Refugees Act 2006,” Mr Onek said, reading from a prepared text.

UNHCR officials were reportedly outraged by news of Mutabazi’s arrest and extradition, but the refugee agency’s external relations officer at Kampala office, Ms Karen Ringuette told this newspaper that they do not comment on “individual cases”.
Witness account: How Mutabazi’s arrest unfolded

Lt Joel Mutabazi lived with family on the 2nd Floor of Sky Hotel in Naalya, a Kampala suburb. He seemed aware of plans to hand him over to Rwandan security. In the morning on that fateful Friday, October 25, he first sketched an escape through a nearby church but returned to the hotel when Ugandan police guards deployed at the hotel tight-marked him.

Suddenly at around 7pm, security was beefed up at the hotel; all the floors, the reception/counter were manned by armed but un-uniformed personnel. There were also twoarmed guards – a man and a woman – in the hotel’s small gardens and other non-uniformed security officers took control of the gate as well.

Mysterious escape
Realising that his every move was being closely monitored, Lt Mutabazi – an Israeli-trained commando, somehow managed to slip away through the security net, and no one knows whether he scaled over the fence or used a woman’s car to get away since there were women meeting there up to about 8:40pm. At about 9pm, top security guys on the hotel’s upper floor checked in Mutabazi’s room only to find his wife and children. They were thrown into panic and an intense search got underway immediately. A high-speeding Corolla with a registration in UAP series entered through the hotel gate and senior security officials came out of it, ordering everyone around to be arrested. They ordered all security personnel at the hotel to come out and sit on the tarmac in the parking yard, but they got scared when they heard that there was an unnamed Maj Gen in the hotel at the time

[As told to Tabu Butagira]