Opposition leaders in Rwanda are hounded in the courts

By IndepthAfrica
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Nov 1st, 2012
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Economist

VICTOIRE INGABIRE returned to her native country in 2010 to compete in presidential elections after 16 years in exile in the Netherlands. She became the leader of an opposition party, United Democratic Forces, challenging the incumbent, President Paul Kagame. That campaign has now earned her an eight-year prison sentence. On October 30th Rwanda’s high court found her guilty of belittling the 1994 genocide as well as conspiring to harm the country through terrorism.

Ms Ingabire was arrested during the election while visiting a memorial in the capital, Kigali, to the 800,000 Rwandans slaughtered in the genocide, most of them ethnic Tutsis while the vast majority of perpetrators were Hutus. Her crime was to question why Hutu moderates, many of whom died too, were not mentioned alongside the Tutsi victims. The comment was seen as a direct challenge to the government’s edict that Rwandans cease to see themselves as Hutus and Tutsis. Ms Ingabire, a Hutu, was taken into custody under the country’s controversial genocide-ideology laws.

Over the following two years her case became a testing ground for Rwanda’s official claims that its judiciary is independent. To critics of the government it was a constant reminder of the lack of fairness in a country lauded abroad for impressive economic growth and declining poverty levels. Human-rights groups frequently question the record of President Kagame. The conduct of the trial has done little to reassure Rwandans and foreign friends that the country is on the right course.

The case against Ms Ingabire was built largely on the testimony of four co-defendants, all of whom received lighter sentences than she did. According to evidence they provided, she conspired with the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, an armed group operating in eastern Congo, and planned to form a new militia, the Coalition of Democratic Forces. There are strong suggestions, backed by Human Rights Watch, a New York-based NGO, that coercion may have been used to influence some of the testimony.

The Rwandan government has insisted that the judicial process was fair. The court rejected four additional charges against Ms Ingabire related to terrorism. There are suggestions that President Kagame may have intervened to reduce the sentence, following a letter from her pleading for leniency.

But regardless of the merits of the particular case, a survey of the fate of opposition groups gives cause for concern. Ms Ingabire’s party has been refused the right to register in Rwanda; Bernard Ntaganda, the leader of another opposition group, PS Imberakuri, is also in prison on similarly controversial grounds. A third political party, the Democratic Green Party, is in seeming disarray after the murder of its vice-president and the flight from the country of its leader. Mr Kagame, a Tutsi, would probably have trounced any of these opponents in a free and fair vote, but his regime is allergic to any and all criticism, even at the risk of creating martyrs.

The guerrilla leader turned president has recently been accused by United Nations experts of supporting an armed rebellion in neighbouring Congo. A report commissioned by the UN Security Council, and then leaked to media, alleges that Mr Kagame’s defence minister, James Kabarebe, has been giving “direct military orders” to Congolese rebels who benefit from illegal minerals trading. It suggested that Rwandan troops participated in rebel attacks that killed a UN peacekeeper.

The publication of the damaging dossier coincided with a Rwandan bid for a non-permanent seat on the Security Council. Thanks to foreign friends, who also provide roughly one-quarter of his budget, Mr Kagame won the seat. But the warm glow that used to surround him at international events is fading.

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