Rwanda – Hard times for the opposition

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On October 30, 2012, the Kigali High Court found Victoire Ingabire Umohoza, opposition leader and president of the United Democratic Forces-Inkingi (FDU-Inkingi) party, guilty of conspiracy to undermine the Rwandan government and of denying the genocide. She was sentenced to 8 years in prison, a year after her arrest in Kigali. According to her lawyers, the considerable delay was owed to the need to translate the accusation files into English, for two of the lawyers were British and did not understand the local language, Kinyarwanda. Since Victoire Ingabire is a politician, critics claimed that her trial was politically biased. 

rw2She was charged with creating an armed group, complicity in terrorist acts, and complicity in endangering the state through terrorism and armed violence. Besides, she was also charged of advocating “genocide ideology,” “divisionism”, and spreading rumours intended to incite the public to rise up against the state. Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch (HRW) considers that the last three charges reflect the Rwandan government’s unwillingness to tolerate criticism and to accept the role of opposition parties. In fact, the 2008 genocide ideology law, under which Ingabire was charged, has been used to silence criticism of the government. The definition of “genocide ideology” is imprecise, leaving the law open to abuse. Accordingly, people such as Ingabire who have spoken out about crimes committed by the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) against Hutu civilians since 1994 have been particularly vulnerable to accusations of “genocide ideology.”
HRW also considers that in many ways the trial was “flawed” since the court changed two of the charges during the proceedings. The coherence of the verdict is questionable. Ingabire who pleaded not guilty was tried alongside four co-defendants ? Vital Uwumuremyi, Jean-Marie Vianney Karuta, Tharcisse Nditurende, and Noel Habiyaremye – who all admitted to belonging to the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, better known as FDLR, and to have been in contact with her. All four pleaded guilty to charges of belonging to this terrorist movement, which includes individuals who took part in the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Curiously, the four men who admitted to be confirmed terrorists got lighter sentences than the politician who was never in the field.
Yet, by establishing contact with a terrorist grorw3up, Victoire Ingabire took risks. Indeed, some of the charges against her are supported by evidence in a December 2011 UN report which shows facsimiles of money transfers by associates of Victoire Ingabire to FDLR Lt-colonels Habyaremye and Nditurende. The UN report also mentions that both commanders claimed to have deserted the FDLR years before their contact with Ingabire. Both men said that the funds were intended to cover travel fees for a meeting with Ingabire.
However, during the trial, both men pleaded guilty and HRW suggests that they may have been subject to pressures during their detention before trail in a military camp. The human rights organization says it has received information that other detainees in military custody in the same camp have been tortured to extract confessions. Some detainees alleged that they were ordered to incriminate Ingabire, even though their cases were unrelated. In other words, it is plausible that pressures were exerted on the co-defendants. However, neither Ingabire’s defence team nor HRW showed evidence to back their case. HRW however writes that since the beginning of 2010 ? several months before Ingabire was arrested ? senior Rwandan government officials, including President Paul Kagame, publicly undermined the presumption of innocence, using language that strongly indicated their belief that Ingabire was guilty.
In HRW’s view, the trial and the verdict are symptoms of a political will to clamp down on the opposition in a country where freedom of expression is very limited. The FDU-Inkingi has not been able to register as a political party before the 2010 elections. Other opposition parties have had similar treatment. Bernard Ntaganda, the founding of the PS-Imberakuri party, is in prison since June 2010 charged with endangering national serw4curity, “divisionism,” and attempting to organize demonstrations without authorization. He was sentenced to four years in prison in February 2011. A third opposition party, the Democratic Green Party (DGP), which was affected by the murder of its vice president in July 2010, has also been unable to register in Rwanda, Last September, Frank Habineza, DGP new president, returned to Rwanda to try and register the party with a view to participating in the 2013 parliamentary elections. The success or the failure to do so will be an indication of the government’s will to open the political space in Rwanda.
At the same time, it is difficult for foreigners to assess the meaning of Rwandan political speeches and their possible hatred potential. During and after the genocide, perpetrators were using words like “gakura” (work) to mean killing and “inyenzi” (cockroaches) meaning the Tutsis. Rwandans from whatever side use a code language which may confuse foreign observers. Euphemism is part of the culture. This said, the political meaning of the verdict in this trial is that the RPF is standing firm on its line, refusing to negotiate any agreement with the FDLR, while clamping down on any opposition. Now, the question is whether that is a wise strategy. If the Rwandan authorities legalized parties on the condition that they repeal violence and ethnic hatred speech, perhaps some of them would take more distances from the FDLR.

Antoine Kadiga


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