With his Belgian passport and job as a Brussels bus driver, Norbert Rukimbira would not have stood out as a suspected international assassin as he sat on board the Eurolines coach that pulled into the passport control building at Folkestone’s Eurotunnel terminal three weeks ago.
But within moments of his arrival on British soil, the 43-year-old teaching graduate found himself surrounded and being quietly taken aside by counter-terrorism officers, and questioned about his suspected involvement in an assassination squad allegedly sent to London by the Rwandan government to kill two critics of the increasingly authoritarian regime of President Paul Kagame.
Acting on information supplied by Scotland Yard, the Kent Police detectives knew that while Mr Rukimbira is now a public transport worker in a glittering European capital, he was until 2001 an officer in Rwanda’s intelligence services with 20 years of experience in the small east African country’s military and police.
After six hours of questioning during which his baggage was searched and a mobile phone SIM card confiscated, Mr Rukimbira was sent back whence he came – put on a late-night coach back through the Channel Tunnel. Yesterday, he spoke for the first time to strongly deny any role in the alleged plot, saying it was an “insult” to his knowledge of the shadowy world of national security.
The interception at Folkestone had its roots in a six-month investigation which last month led the Yard to serve extraordinary notices to two Rwandans living in the UK, stating that police had “reliable intelligence” that the Rwandan government posed an “imminent threat” to their lives.
Rene Mugenzi, a 35-year-old community worker, and Jonathan Musonera, an opposition political activist, were warned to improve security at their homes, change their daily routines and never walk unaccompanied.
Mr Rukimbira, who was travelling to London he says to attend a conference for the Rwandan National Conference, a new political party co-founded by Mr Musonera, was removed from the coach taking him from his home in the Belgian capital at the Channel Tunnel terminal in Folkestone by Kent Police officers on 13 May – the same day that Scotland Yard officers visited Mr Mugenzi and Mr Musonera to warn their lives were in danger.
The disclosure of the alleged assassination plot on British soil is the latest incident that threatens to cool the hitherto close relationship between Rwanda and Britain, which is the single largest aid donor to Kigali with an annual package worth £82m.
The Independent revealed in April that the High Commissioner to London, Ernest Rwamucyo, had been warned by MI5 to halt a claimed campaign of harassment against critics of Mr Kagame among Rwandan expats and MPs called for Britain to review its relationship with Kigali in the light of the Yard’s latest investigations.
Police sources told The Independent that Mr Rukimbira, a former investigator in a special intelligence unit of the Rwandan police who fled the country in 2001 and now works as a driver for the Brussels bus service, was stopped under counter-terrorism legislation because of a suspected link with the alleged assassination plot. He was served with a document, known as a Schedule 7 notice, stating that he was being questioned to determine whether he “is or has been concerned in the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism”.
In a statement, the Metropolitan Police said: “At approximately 7pm on 13 May, a 43-year-old man was stopped by Kent Police. He was not arrested and subsequently left the UK.”
Mr Rukimbira, who is currently sitting exams to become a taxi driver, insists that he was the victim of misinformation about the purpose of his visit London, where he had been due to stay in the home of Mr Musonera, a childhood friend and former comrade in the Rwandan Patriotic Front – the army led by Mr Kagame which stopped the 1994 genocide.
Speaking in a Brussels tea salon after insisting that he wanted to clear his name, Mr Rukimbira dismissed the idea that he had been sent to assassinate Mr Musonera, describing him as a “brother” because “we grew up together and served in the same army”.
In a remarkable statement, the tall, balding former police inspector said: “I wasn’t going to carry a weapon and risk being searched on entry to the UK. As a former member of Rwandan intelligence, that would be an insult to my 20 years of career experience.
“When you’re planning an operation like that, I would have taken all the precautions, not leaving anything. I wouldn’t have used my own mobile number, [I] would have used a public telephone. I’m not an idiot, I am a cop, and you can imagine I wouldn’t have brought my contacts with me.”
While working as a lieutenant in the Rwandan intelligence services, Mr Rukimbira was named by relatives of Assiel Kabera - a former ally of Mr Kagame shot dead in 2000 - as a suspect in the killing. Mr Rukimbira strongly denies the allegation and insists that he fled the country a year later after refusing money to investigate the defection of eight colleagues.
He said: “Since leaving Africa, the way I see life has changed. Here I am free man, I love music and do other things. What I do is drive a bus, I work in a public company, I am known. I cannot do anything bad.”
The image of hit squads roaming London was denounced by the Rwandan government, which has now asked the Metropolitan Police to provide details of its allegations. In a statement, a spokesman for Mr Kagame said: “Never does the Government of Rwanda threaten the lives of its citizens, nor use violence against its people wherever they live.”
Mr Musonera said he had no view on the reasons why Mr Rukimbira had been stopped by police. He added: “I’ve faced death a million times.”
For his part, the bus driver said he was dedicated to finding a peaceful solution to Rwanda’s political problems. He said: “My motivation is that I am a person who hates persecution. And I love peace because I know its price. And even here, I will try to make sure that among all the people they have peace because I like it. There can be problems but these need to be solved through dialogue.”
Yoletta Nyange is a Rwandan-born freelance journalist. Her blog is bubulcusibis.wordpress.com