The jailing of opposition politician Victoire Umuhoza Ingabire, who was seen as the “last standing real opposition member”, has raised concerns that the government is stifling democracy.
The High Court in Kigali last week handed Ms Ingabire, the head of the yet-to-be registered Union Democratic Forces-FDU Inkingi, eight years in jail after finding her guilty of complicity in treason and genocide ideology.
The sentencing followed a two-year trial in which the prosecution had sought a life imprisonment sentence.
High Court Judge Alice Rulisa, delivered the verdict in the case in which Ms Ingabire, along with four others, faced charges of terrorism, inciting citizens against the government, genocide denial and promoting the genocide ideology and ethnic divisions.
Ms Ingabire joins Bernard Ntaganda, the former leader of Parti Sociale Imberakuri, who was sentenced to four years in jail for organising an illegal assembly and inciting divisions based on ethnicity, and Deo Mushayidi, serving a life sentence on charges related to terrorism, genocide denial and treason.
Several other politicians, including former President Pasteur Bizimungu and Charles Ntakirutinka, have been imprisoned for criticising the government and later released on pardon or after serving time. Mr Bizimungu and Mr Ntakirutinka were charged under the same laws.
With Ms Ingabire’s jailing, key opposition members in Rwanda are now either in jail or living outside Rwanda, something Human Rights Watch (HRW) says confirms fears that the government is increasingly becoming intolerant to dissenting voices.
“The prosecution of Ingabire for ‘genocide ideology’ and divisionism illustrates the Rwandan government’s unwillingness to accept the role of opposition parties in a democratic society. The courts should not be used for such political purposes,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director of HRW.
The rights group accused Rwanda of using anti-genocide laws to crush dissent, with all the politicians in question charged under the same laws. It noted that the government has a duty to prevent hate speech. “However, the responsibility to prevent violence should not be used as an excuse for stifling criticism or prohibiting discussion of certain events nor should it be invoked as a pretext for delaying democratic reforms,” said Mr Bekele.
Rwanda’s Minister of Justice Tharcisse Karugarama said the rights group was merely seeking media attention “by involving itself in matters of national interest that are entirely legal.”
Mr Karugarama, who is also the Attorney General, said, “It should be noted that it was a total of six charges and she was acquitted on four after thorough investigations and analysis of evidence.”
HRW argues that the sentencing of Ms Ingabire means that there is no functioning opposition party, with the ruling party, the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) dominating the political scene without any meaningful challenge from other parties represented in parliament.
Two types of “opposition groupings” exist in Rwanda, with the one serving in a coalition with the ruling party not considered “true opposition” while the stronger ones led by Ingabire have all had run-ins with the government and the law.
Ms Ingabire’s FDU-Inkingi has not been able to register as a political party, despite several attempts before the 2010 elections.
Mr Ntaganda’s PS Imberakuri split into two, with one part registered and the other remaining loyal to the detained politician.
Christine Mukabunani, the leader of the registered breakaway PS Imberakuri told The EastAfrican that ‘opposition’ does not mean to ‘break the laws of a country’ as they are bigger than individuals or parties.
“When the actions of opposition are deemed to be against the law, it is the court to decide. Our job is to criticise the government but not to fight laws,” Ms Mukabunani, also the spokesperson of the political parties’ forum said.
Ms Ingabire left Rwanda for Europe in 1993, a year later, the genocide took place. She returned in January 2010, only to utter statements upon arrival at Kigali International Airport and later at Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre, all of which were used against her in the case.
Ingabire lead defence lawyer Iain Edwards told The East African that his client maintains a not guilty plea. “We are worried that our clients statements in court and in the letter addressed to the president could have been understood to make the public believe that she was pleading guilty and seeking for a pardon,” Mr Edwards says.
Though it appears in the two-page hand written letter addressed to President Paul Kagame, asking to be ‘forgiven’ if her statements were harmful to anyone and Rwandans in general, Mr Edwards maintains that it does not amount to a guilty plea.
However, despite the defence’s plan to appeal, a member of Ms Ingabire’s party said that they will boycott the Rwandan judiciary as their leader did in April this year, contradicting Mr Edwards.
Boniface Twagirimana, the interim vice president of FDU-Inkingi said that the sentence will be appealed in a court outside Rwanda.
“We still maintain that the charges are politically motivated and that the judiciary is not independent. We will appeal in any other court around the world but not Rwanda. We will go to the East African Court of Justice or the African People’s and Human Rights Court,” Mr Twagirimana said.
In April this year, Ms Ingabire withdrew from her own case citing ‘lack of independence’ of the courts, but the government has dismissed Ingabire’s claims as ‘baseless’, at a time when the sector has been boosted by the international community restoring confidence, sending several cases to be tried there.