In October, Innocent Mbarushimana was caught stealing a few bananas in the village of Kabeza in western Rwanda. Two months before that, an improverished farmer named Jean Kanyesoko was caught red-handed stealing someone's sugarcane.
They and dozens of others were shot dead or beaten to death in the last year by Rwandan security forces, including soldiers, police and members of a military auxiliary force, Human Rights Watch reported Thursday.
Among those summarily executed were suspects accused of taking cows, motorcycles or lightbulbs. Smugglers who sneaked across the nearby border with the Democratic Republic of Congo met the same fate, as did fishermen in Lake Kivu who used illegal nets.
Kanyesoko, the impoverished farmer, was 64 and had five children to feed when he was shot by soldiers after he was caught stealing sugar cane, Human Rights Watch said. A soldier standing next to his body told the dead man's neighbors to take the body away, adding that orders had been issued to kill all thieves.
At least 37 petty criminals were executed without trial by security forces, with at least six other credible reports of similar cases, according to the organization, which reported that the killings appeared to officially sanctioned.
Rwanda, a tiny, densely populated, neat-as-a-pin nation in east Africa with a reputation for efficiency and progress, has a darker side to its story after its stunning emergence from the genocide of 1994, during which the government says more than a million Tutsi people were killed.
Rwanda has been widely praised for rebuilding and fostering healing after the genocide. Infrastructure development, health and education statistics and female political representation are all impressive, and the death penalty has been officially abolished. But dissent is not tolerated, and fear is pervasive amid extrajudicial executions and disappearances.
According to Human Rights Watch, most family members of the slain petty criminals were afraid to demand justice, and those who did were often threatened.
Rwanda is heading to elections in early August, when President Paul Kagame is certain to win by a huge margin. Kagame took power in 2000 and is nearing the end of his second term. While the country had a two-term limit, Parliament — dominated by Kagame supporters --voted in 2015 to abolish it, enabling Kagame to remain in power until 2029 if he wishes.
Kagame and his supporters brush aside Western critics of the government's repressive approach, saying that outsiders do not understand what Rwandan people want.
According to the Human Rights Watch report, many of the killings came after local authorities warned people in community meetings that new orders had been issued that all thieves would be killed. In some cases local officials drew up lists of people to be targeted.
The rights group cited 40 witnesses who said military and local government officials in the Rubavo and Rutsiro districts in western Rwanda declared that thieves would be arrested and killed.
National government officials did not respond to Human Rights Watch requests for comment. One local official, Mayor Jeremie Sinamenye of the Rubavo district, said the group's charges were rumors spread by Rwanda's enemies to destabilize the country.
"What the people are telling you is not true," he said. "In Rwanda, we follow the law. If someone is suspected of a crime, they are taken to the police and they will go to court. ... There is no new law saying that thieves should be killed. There is nothing of the kind."
The widow of one of the dead men, who was not identified by name, said that she saw soldiers with her husband's body.
"The soldiers told us not to be sad and not to cry. They said if we dared to cry, we would risk being shot," she said.