Rwanda is unlawfully locking up beggars, sex workers and homeless people to clean up the image of its capital, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Thursday, in a report dismissed by the government.
Officials said drug addicts and other people were held only briefly in a transit center before going to rehabilitation programs. They denied breaking local or international laws.
HRW, a New York–based rights group, said thousands of people were detained for up to several months without being charged, in "deplorable" and "filthy" conditions at the Gikondo Transit Center in Kigali.
"The arbitrary detention ... reflects an unofficial policy of keeping people the authorities consider 'undesirable' away from the public eye," it added, citing research, including interviews with 57 former detainees.
"Kigali is often praised for its cleanliness and tidiness, but its poorest residents have been paying the price for this positive image," said Daniel Bekele, HRW's Africa director.
Rwanda's Justice Minister Johnston Busingye released a statement saying Gikondo was not a detention center. "It is a transit center, and people are held there for a short period before longer-term remedial or corrective measures are taken," he said, without specifying how long people stayed or whether their involvement was voluntary.
More than 7,000 Rwandans have completed the program and are now working in carpentry, masonry, welding, tailoring and beekeeping, "improving their well-being for a brighter future," he added.
President Paul Kagame has won praise for the economic progress Rwanda nation has made since the 1994 genocide, when 800,000 people — mostly Tutsis and moderate Hutus — were killed.
His critics accuse him of cracking down on dissent, a charge he dismisses.