A volunteering cathedral treasurer in England has reportedly stolen £222,000 to feed his gambling addiction.
Rene Mugenzi, a British citizen of Rwandan origin, stole the money from St John the Baptist Cathedral in Norwich, England while acting as its treasurer.
Local media reports indicate that Mugenzi was jailed for more than two years at Norwich Crown Court on Friday for siphoning the cash off the church’s bank account into his own between March 2016 and May 2018.
He admitted the fraud at Norwich Magistrates’ Court in July, but magistrates barred the public from knowing about the case because Mugenzi’s solicitor told them the fraudster’s life was under threat, Eastern Daily Press reports.
The 44-year-old is a strong critic of Kagame’s government in Rwanda, and was forced into exile for fear of his life. In 2011, Mugenzi was warned by the Met Police in North London that he could be a target for assassination following the wave of assassinations on the opponents of the current Rwandan RPF government.
It is reported that much of the cash was designated for Catholic charities and church work and had been donated by worshippers at the end of services, but Mugenzi pocketed it to fund his gambling addiction, the court heard.
Prosecutor Chris Youell said the Rwandan fugitive transferred small amounts into his own account and lost track of how much he had taken. He had full access to the account and there were no checks in place.
The fraud was not discovered until the cathedral carried out a review into its finances two years later in 2018 after it struggled to pay bills.
In a victim impact statement, Canon David Paul said the fraud had left the cathedral unable to pay bills and had a “very detrimental” impact on their ability to trust people. The church only recovered around a quarter of the money from insurers.
Used gambling like a drug
Mr Andrew Oliver, mitigating for Mugenzi, said he had used gambling like a drug to deal with mental health issues brought about by struggling to make ends meet.
He said Mugenzi had since sought help, stopped gambling and attended more than 20 therapy sessions.
Mr Oliver pointed to Mugenzi’s work speaking out against human rights abuses of regimes, including the Rwandan government.
He said Mugenzi believed he was under threat from the Rwandan government and this made him anxious and fearful and he had struggled to work.
Mr Oliver described the fraud as “amateurish” and said Mugenzi had admitted it to police as soon as it was discovered in summer 2018.
He said it had a big impact on Mugenzi’s personal life and harmed his relationship with his family.
He asked the judge to suspend Mugenzi’s sentence, meaning he would not go to prison.
But while sentencing him to 27 months in prison, the judge Katharine Moore said Mugenzi had “grossly abused” trust placed in him.
She acknowledged he had pleaded guilty at the first opportunity and was a “highly intelligent man” of “active good character”. But she ruled that only a prison sentence could be justified.
From human rights campaigner to gambling addict
Rene Mugenzi’s path to the dock in Norwich Crown Court was long and winding.
He was born in southern Russia to Rwandan parents, according to his Wikipedia page, where he is described as a “human rights activist, community organizer,and politician”.
The 44-year-old left Russia while still a child and grew up in Rwanda.
He fled when he was 18 during the genocide of the 1990s which destroyed the East African country.
In 1997, aged 21, he moved to the UK where he worked with Rwandan opposition groups, according to his Wikipedia page. He has lived in England ever since.
The British citizen studied at King’s College, London, and then started community work in the city.
In 2010 he stood in local elections in Greenwich for the Liberal Democrats.
A year later he was in the international press, after being warned his life could be under threat.
The New York Times reported the Met Police had told Mugenzi the Rwandan government wanted to assassinate him because of his work with the opposition.
“Reliable intelligence states that the Rwandan government poses an imminent threat to your life,” the letter read.
However, Mugenzi continued to speak out against the Rwandan regime and also worked to increase social mobility in London, according to his Wikipedia page.
In the 2015 general election, he stood to become MP for Limehouse and Poplar for a group called the Red Flag Anti-Corruption Party. He came last with 89 votes.
According to his LinkedIn page, he started work as a guest lecturer at the University of East Anglia in 2017 in “social innovation and social entrepreneurship development”.
He lists his most recent job as “social innovation consultant” in Cambridge.
Mugenzi is listed as a director of several companies, including one where he became a director just five days before he appeared in Norwich Magistrates’ Court and pleaded guilty to the fraud.
Human rights activists react
Some human rights activists have decried the act of those who self-proclaim to be human rights activists in the guise of earning public trust and then steal from them.
Mr Greg Heavens, the CEO of an American-based human rights organization, International Relief for Human Rights Initiative (IRHRI) said there are many Rwandans who claim to be political opposition outside the country yet they are trying to run from there bad reputation.
“How can someone who claims to be fighting for underprivileged steal money meant to help them. Human rights activism is for the brave and well-behaved. People like the late Kizito Mihigo and many others who have died in the bad hands of Rwandan RPF government,” he said.
Mr Greg said Mugenzi has contributed to what happened to Kizito Mihigo.
People like Bonabana Prosy, Sulah Nuwamanya, Noble Marara and their General Kayumba plus many others have bad reputations yet they claim to be rights activists.
“Remember the case of Bonabana Prossy, she was also involved in stealing money. According court records, these people are not clean and whoever is working with them should know is dealing with a set of criminals,” he said.
According to Mr Greg, Prossy and Sulah claim to human rights activists yet they involve in politics and stealing money. Good human rights activists do not involved themselves in such acts.