The acquittal of Rwandan politician Diane Rwigara has invigorated the opposition to demand a review of cases of other politicians even as the government refuted claims that external pressure had influenced the court’s decision.
The 37-year-old accountant, who was charged with inciting insurrection and forgery, was set free alongside her mother Adeline, by the High Court in Kigali on Thursday.
“We find that the prosecution charges do not have a basis and find Diane Rwigara and Adeline Rwigara not guilty on all charges,” stated the verdict of the three-judge Bench.
Ms Rwigara, a fierce critic of the government who tried to challenge President Paul Kagame for the presidency, had spent close to a year in detention.
She was arrested and charged shortly after being disqualified from vying for president in September 2017.
The court ruled that Diane did not incite violence and was only exercising her right of speech when she criticised the president in her press conferences during her stint as presidential candidate hopeful.
Her mother, too, was acquitted of charges of promoting sectarianism, ethnic division and inciting violence.
The four accused relatives who are not in the country were also cleared of all charges.
“The charges against both Diane Rwigara and Adeline Rwigara do not have a basis and we find them not guilty on all charges,” Presiding Judge Xavier Ndahayo said.
Both women had been granted bail earlier in October.
Shortly after being declared free, Diane addressed the media inside the small courtroom: “I am free and happy finally. I hope this means that the persecution I and my family have faced is over and that I have the liberty to speak my mind. That is what I will continue to fight for across the country.”
The prosecution conceded, but implied it would still consider its options. It has 30 days to appeal.
“The Prosecution respects court decisions. We will review details of today’s judgment in the case of Diane Rwigara et al, and consider our options,” the prosecution authority said in a statement.
The Green Party, an opposition party that won its first ever seat in parliament in the polls, welcomed the decision as a good precedent for political opponents in the country.
“We are very pleased that Diane Rwigara and her mother Adeline have been acquitted of all charges. This is a good precedent for the exercise of different political opinions. Imprisoned politicians also need a chance to re-appeal their cases,” Frank Habineza, leader of The Green Party told The EastAfrican.
“The outcome of this trial also means that critical opposing views are not a crime, and no one should perceive them as that again in the future.”
Amnesty International welcomed the High Court's decision and called on the Rwandan government to work “towards developing greater tolerance and acceptance of alternative and critical views.”
“Diane and Adeline Rwigara should never have faced charges for expressing their views. While we welcome their discharge and acquittal, we are concerned that the right to freedom of expression remains under attack in Rwanda,” the rights group said in a statement.
The verdict came at a time of mounting pressure from the US, with several members of Congress calling on government to release both women.
Following the ruling, the Minister of Justice and Attorney General Johnston Busingye said in a statement that the government respected the court's verdict but warned those attempting to exert influence externally.
“We condemn all attempts by external actors to inappropriately influence judicial processes in Rwanda. We will continue to vigorously enforce our laws on electoral integrity, public safety, and respect for the Judiciary,” Minister Busingye said in a statement.