(Kigali) - Opposition party members are facing increasing threats, attacks, and harassment in advance of Rwanda's August 2010 presidential election, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch urged the government to investigate all such incidents and to ensure that opposition activists are able to go about their legitimate activities without fear.
In the past week, members of the FDU-Inkingi and the Democratic Green Party of Rwanda - new opposition parties critical of government policies - have suffered serious incidents of intimidation by individuals and institutions close to the government and the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). One member of the FDU-Inkingi was beaten by a mob in front of a local government office. The attack appeared to have been well coordinated, suggesting it had been planned in advance.
"The Rwandan government already tightly controls political space," said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "These incidents will further undermine democracy by discouraging any meaningful opposition in the elections."
The Rwandan government and the RPF have strongly resisted any political opposition or broader challenge of their policies by civil society. On several occasions, the government has used accusations of participation in the genocide, or "genocide ideology," as a way of targeting and discrediting its critics. The current RPF-dominated government has been in power in Rwanda since the end of the 1994 genocide.
Victoire Ingabire, president of the FDU-Inkingi, has faced an intensive campaign of public vilification since she returned from exile in the Netherlands in January 2010. She has been widely condemned in official and quasi-official media and described as a "negationist" of the genocide for stating publicly that crimes committed against Hutu citizens by the RPF and the Rwandan army should be investigated and those responsible brought to justice.
Beating of Joseph Ntawangundi
Ingabire received a phone call on February 3 from the executive secretary of Kinyinya sector, Jonas Shema, who told her that she should come with her colleagues to the local government office to collect official documents required for their identity cards. When Ingabire and Joseph Ntawangundi, a party colleague, arrived outside the local government office, they were met by a group of people. Two men jostled Ingabire, grabbed her by the arms, and stole her handbag, which contained her passport. The attackers shouted, "We don't want génocidaires here!" and, "We don't want people with genocide ideology!" Ingabire managed to run to her car unharmed; some of the men threw stones at the car as it drove off.
The men then turned on Ntawangundi and beat him severely. He described to Human Rights Watch being attacked for about 45 minutes by scores of young men who punched him, kicked and scratched him, threw him into the air, and ripped his clothes. They stole his watch, glasses, and shoes. The attack appeared to be designed not only to hurt Ntawangundi, but also to humiliate him. At one point, at least six people held him in the air, with his feet apart, and carried him toward a tree. They insulted him and shouted phrases such as: "We don't want you here! You have no right to an identity card!"
The attack appears to have been well organized. On several occasions, when the beatings became particularly brutal, individuals who appeared to be leading the group ordered the others to stop - for example, when the assailants each picked up a stone from a pile on the ground and prepared to throw them at Ntawangundi.
Several witnesses told Human Rights Watch that policemen and members of the Local Defense Force were present during the attack, but did not try to stop it - nor did Shema, the executive secretary, seem to make any effort to call for assistance.
Eventually, alerted to the attack by other members of the FDU-Inkingi, police from the nearby station intervened. The mob followed Ntawangundi to the police station and stayed there for about 10 minutes. The police claim they have opened an investigation, but have declined to provide any information on whether there has been any progress or any arrests made.
When Human Rights Watch representatives met with Ntawangundi the day after the beating, he was visibly suffering from his injuries and was finding it painful to walk. Although he had been given pain medication when he went to a hospital for treatment, he said pain remained in his kidneys, back, and head.
Rwandan government and police authorities have offered a different version of events, claiming that residents of Kinyinya who had been waiting for their identity documents for a long time became angry and reacted spontaneously against Ingabire and her colleague when they allegedly jumped the line. This version was broadcast widely on Rwandan and international media.
In a telephone conversation with Human Rights Watch, police spokesperson Eric Kayiranga minimized the incident, but said that the police were investigating. Human Rights Watch tried to contact Shema several times, but he was unavailable.
Arrest of Joseph Ntawangundi
Three days later, on February 6, police arrested Ntawangundi on accusations of participation in the genocide. They told him that a gacaca court, a community-based court set up to try crimes committed during the genocide, had convicted him in absentia. He was initially detained at the police station at Remera, in Kigali, but was not told of the specific charges against him. His Rwandan lawyer was not allowed to see him on February 6, though a foreign lawyer was allowed to see him the next day. He was transferred to Kimironko prison on February 8.
The FDU-Inkingi has stated that Ntawangundi was living abroad during the genocide, and that he had never heard about the accusations against him until the day before his arrest when an article containing these allegations was published in the New Times, a Rwandan newspaper that is closely aligned with the government.
Intimidation of Green Party members
In a separate development on February 4, the Green Party president, Frank Habineza, was talking with a party member in a Kigali restaurant when a man Habineza did not know approached and greeted him by name. The man, who would not give his own name, asked Habineza to recruit him to the Green Party.
The man then asked Habineza why he was rejecting those who had helped him (a reference to Habineza's former links with the RPF), and why he had been spending time with Ingabire. He warned Habineza that he was being watched and that "they" knew what he was doing and whom he was seeing. The man gave accurate details of appointments Habineza had attended and was scheduled to attend. He told Habineza: "We're monitoring you very closely. Be careful." The man's identity remains unclear, but his comments indicate that he may have close government connections.
"This escalation of attacks against opposition party members does not bode well for the election," Gagnon said. "The Rwandan government should immediately investigate these incidents, bring those responsible to justice, and make sure that the interference with opposition parties stops."
Government opponents and critics have repeatedly faced threats and obstacles to legitimate political activity in Rwanda.
In 2009, several meetings of the Green Party and the PS-Imberakuri - another opposition party - were broken up by police, in some cases violently. Both parties have since found it difficult to obtain the official authorization to hold meetings. Political parties need to be officially registered before they can offer candidates in the elections, and some of the intimidation seemed designed to obstruct this process. PS-Imberakuri finally managed to register in November. The Green Party has still not succeeded, despite several attempts. Green Party members have come under pressure to give up their political activities, and some have received anonymous phone calls asking for information about Habineza and his travel plans.
In late 2009, Bernard Ntaganda, leader of the PS-Imberakuri, was summoned before the Senate to answer accusations of "genocide ideology" in connection with public statements he had made criticizing the government. Ntaganda's case is still pending before the Senate, which has indicated that the case may be referred for criminal prosecution.
Political opposition activities were also tightly restricted during the September 2008 legislative elections, when RPF candidates won 79 percent of the vote. European Union observers noted procedural irregularities in over half the polling places, RPF domination of the media, and the absence of political plurality, due in part to the fear of "genocide ideology" accusations.