Rwanda: How Wedding Entourage Ended Up at Stadium in Sting Operation

Wedding rings (file photo).

The arrests sparked public outrage, especially on social media platforms.

Police this week came under heavy public criticism, especially on social media, after a photo emerged of an Easter Monday wedding entourage, including both the bride and the groom, sitting on the terraces of IPRC-Kigali stadium under arrest over Covid-19 violations.

In widely circulated photos taken at the stadium, the bride, Jeannette Mukeshimana, can be seen in her white wedding dress, complete with the veil and train, next to her besuited groom Aimé Ndagijimana.

In all, 57 people, including several senior citizens, were arrested.

They had been attending an introduction and dowry ceremony at a residential property in Muyange Cell, Kagarama Sector, Kicukiro District.

Their party was broken up in a police raid on the private property following a tip-off.

When law-enforcement officers arrived at the scene, at around 11a.m, the wedding party was having a meal.

"We were almost done with introduction when the police arrived," said Anne Marie Mukagakwerere, the woman who raised Mukeshimana, the bride.

Under the national coronavirus protocols, which were last updated just over a month ago, couples are allowed to wed but only civil and religious ceremonies are permitted with a maximum of 20 socially distanced people. In case of physical meetings, participants can only exceed 20 if they tested for Covid and returned negative results.

But, if the event in Kicukiro was an introduction (gusaba), then why was the bride in a wedding dress when she and others were taken to the stadium to serve their punishment and be lectured on Covid-19 prevention measures?

"She was dressed in a mushanana (a traditional outfit) by the time the police came," admitted Mukagakwerere. "However, on seeing the officers, her colleagues hurried to have her change into her bridal gown hoping to attract sympathy from the police."

She added: "I was angry at them, I asked why she had to change into the wedding dress. But I was told the idea was that we would head straight to church for religious ceremonies in case the police pardoned us."

The event was taking place indoors at the two-story building, both the police and wedding guests who spoke to this reporter confirmed.

How six-hour operation unfolded

Police say the operation lasted about six hours, from around 11a.m to about 5p.m, because when the officers arrived guests dispersed. Many went into hiding, with dozens ending up and locking themselves in rooms, others headed to bathrooms and 'boys quarters'.

"They really made it hard for us to get them all out," ACP Felly B. Rutagerura, the Kigali Metropolitan Police Commander, who led the sting operation told The New Times on April 7.

But how did the operation unfold?

"It started from a tip-off from a family member. The call came on Easter Sunday," Rutagerura said.

He added: "The caller informed us there was a concern the event could turn out to be a superspreader, especially since it was going to be attended by several elderly members of the family from outside Kigali."

All 57 people arrested by Rwanda National Police spent the night on the terraces of Kicukiro Stadium.

The informant told the regional police boss the event had initially been planned to take place at Rainbow Hotel in Kicukiro but it had since been moved to a new venue (the home of the hotel owner) after the hospitality establishment was closed the previous weekend over Covid-19 breaches.

The hotel proprietor, Justin Bisengimana, had mandated his in-law and business associate, Methode Nsengimana, to coordinate the plan, including directing guests to the new venue, the caller informed ACP Rutagerura. "We asked them for the man's (Nsengimana) number and they provided it."

The police went ahead and called Nsengimana to warn against hosting the wedding party in violation of Covid-19 guidelines.

"He replied that there was no such event planned since the hotel had temporary closed," Rutegerura told The New Times.

The next day, he continued, the same person who had tipped the police called again. "This time our source told us that some of the guests were already at the venue and the event was going ahead, with some 70 people expected to attend."

"It was a surprise because we had tried to stop it," he said. "We knew we needed to move in and enforce the rules."

But there was a small dilemma. Their source was not planning to attend and in fact did not know the exact location of the residential building.

"We were able to get the number of the person who was in charge of decoration," Rutagerura said. "We called her as if we were guests coming for the event and needed directions and she directed us."

Shortly after, he added, the same woman called back claiming there had been a change in schedule and they were headed for church.

"We knew they were hiding something and set off," he said. "We later learnt that she had been asked by the maid of honour to call us and stop us from coming because I think they were suspicious."

When the officers arrived, they were having a meal.

"Suddenly almost everyone disappeared into rooms and other places, downstairs, upstairs, everywhere, but we deployed anyway.

"They were in their dozens, at the end of the day we arrested 57 of them. But people were still coming even when we were there, they would quickly go back on seeing us."

It was amidst that chaos that the bride was rushed back into a room changed from her traditional attire for gusaba (introduction) into her wedding dress.

Meanwhile, the officers were told that the couple who owns the home was not around.

They embarked on getting every wedding guest out of the house.

Only one room - the master bedroom - was left unsearched. It was locked.

After several hours of combing the building, searching every corner for suspects, the police were finally ready to leave the crime scene with the wedding guests.

"As we were about to leave someone said that two elderly women were still hiding inside and alleged that one of them lived with hypertension so they couldn't leave without knowing if they were fine," Rutagerura said.

"We now needed to look for the numbers of the owners of the home to ask them to have their main room opened," he added.

The police managed to get the phone number of the woman who, they were told, was in Musanze. They called her to ask her to instruct that the room be opened, just in case the two 'missing' women were inside.

"She denied anyone was in there, but later said she was going to call someone in downtown to come and open the door," ACP Rutagerura said. She also said the husband had travelled to the United States.

They waited in vain.

"Eventually", the police commander said, "I had to call again and inform her that we were going to have the door opened and the room searched in the presence of their children and others who stay in the home. I told her we had a duty to ensure the women were safe."

'I felt embarrassed'

"Just as we were trying to loosen the lock nuts someone inside opened. The two were inside." One of them? Anne-Marie Mukagakwerere - the lady who raised Mukeshimana and is like a mother to her.

"We had nothing to say at all, except that someone had brought us in," she said, remorsefully. "We were in the wrong."

Mukagakwerere, who lives in Niboye Sector in Kicukiro, said she's normally a law-abiding citizen and felt embarrassed by what happened.

After finding Mukagakwerere and another guest, a relative from Nyaruguru District, the officers decided to search further just in case.

As they were about to leave the room, Rutagerura decided to check what lay behind the curtains although he suspected it was a window.

It was a door, unlocked. They opened and ended up on a balcony.

There, they found the owner of the home, Justin Bisengimana, the proprietor of Rainbow.

"He was hiding there and we arrested him," he said. Both Bisengimana and his in-law and manager Methode Nsengimana were immediately handcuffed. While all the others were released after spending the night out at the stadium, the two were still in police custody by the time we were doing this story.

Mukagakwerere told this publication that there was another man in the room who she suspects could have escaped. "We were four of us in the room, there was someone else who seemed to be an electrician, he must have jumped down when I opened the door."

She said Bisengimana had insisted they do not open, reasoning the police would eventually lose interest and leave.

Mukagakwerere also said the police questioned Nsengimana, in front of the guests, why they had decided to proceed with the event despite prior warning against it and after he had told them there was no such event.

"The police were only doing their job and we had broken the law," Mukagakwerere told The New Times on Thursday.

"Honestly, I had initially refused to be part of the whole plan, I knew what we were about to do was illegal, but then I needed to be there for my daughter on her big day. I raised her since she was six. It's unfortunate what happened but I hope everyone has drawn lessons from it."

The New Times learnt that the couple eventually tied the knot at Saint-Jean-Bosco Parish Kicukiro on Tuesday, April 6.

Besides paying a fine of Rwf25,000 each, every offender paid Rwf10,000 for a rapid Covid test. None was found positive.

Groom speaks out

Aime Ndagijimana, the bridegroom, admitted wrongdoing on Thursday and said it was unfortunate some people were dramatizing the issue.

"We breached the guidelines unfortunately and we were punished for it, and we are okay with that, but we are now married and have no problem at all," the newlywed told The New Times Thursday.

The New Times also spoke with the person who alerted the police to the breach. "I thought people's lives were being put at risk, especially the elderly persons. It was wrong. Some people in the family were against holding an illegal event but others kept insisting and went ahead with the plan.

"I felt I had a moral obligation to help stop this, not because family members could end up contracting the virus, but also because it just goes against all the efforts this country has put into fighting coronavirus."

Five people from the countryside were among the guests; three from Nyaruguru District, one from Rubavu District, and another one from Bugesera District.

Three other wedding parties were also broken up in Kigali with attendees also spending a night out at a stadium and paying fines in line with existing public health regulations.

Police Spokesperson CP John Bosco Kabera warned the law-enforcement will not succumb to pressure in exercising its mandate. "We will not be distracted by those who feel that we shouldn't be doing our job, or should be doing it how they want or apply the law selectively. These things are about rule of law, not sentiment."

On suggestions that police should be more empathetic as they go about their work, he noted: "The police are empathetic, but empathy is not impunity or allowing people to break the law and endanger lives as they please."

'Storm in teacup'

Meanwhile, Mukagakwerere has accused some members of the public of making a storm in a teacup. "I still can't believe how people have jumped on this issue and sought to maximise our wrongdoing as if they have all along been waiting for an opportunity to vent their anger at the police. Yes, my daughter was in a bridal gown at the stadium, but so what? Did they want to see her naked?

"It's as if some had issues with the police. The way they rode on our situation to victimise the police is really cheap. I have even heard that some are offering free rooms and raising funds for the couple, who told them they are looking for help or sponsors? It smacks of ulterior motives."

Meanwhile, The New Times understands that Bisengimana and Nsengimana were unlikely to face charges in court and could be set free as early as Friday.

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