(New York) - The four-year prison sentence for Bernard Ntaganda, founding president of the PS-Imberakuri opposition party, strikes a blow to freedom of expression and democracy in Rwanda, Human Rights Watch said today.
On February 11, 2011, the High Court in Kigali found Ntaganda guilty of endangering national security, "divisionism" - inciting ethnic divisions - and attempting to organize demonstrations without official authorization. The court sentenced him to two years each for the first two charges and fined him 100,000 Rwandan francs (approximately US$175) for the third. The charges relate to his public statements criticizing government policies. Human Rights Watch is not aware that he advocated violence in any of these statements. Ntaganda was not present when the judgment was read in court.
Three members of the FDU-Inkingi, another opposition party - Sylvain Sibomana, Alice Muhirwa, and Martin Ntavuka - were also fined 100,000 Rwandan francs each for attempting to organize demonstrations without official authorization. Another PS-Imberakuri member, Jean-Baptiste Icyitonderwa, was acquitted of the same charge.
The verdict comes just one week after two journalists, Agnès Nkusi Uwimana and Saidaiti Mukakibibi, were sentenced to 17 and 7 years respectively in connection with articles in the independent newspaper, Umurabyo, that were viewed as critical of the government and of President Paul Kagame. On February 4, the High Court in Kigali ruled that by publishing these criticisms, the journalists had incited the public to rise up against the state. It found both women guilty of endangering public order. Uwimana, the newspaper's editor, was also found guilty of "minimizing the genocide," which accounted for 10 years of her sentence, "divisionism," and defamation. Both were arrested in July 2010 and have been in detention ever since.
"These are blatantly political trials," said Daniel Bekele, Africa director of Human Rights Watch. "Ntaganda, his colleagues, and the two journalists - as well as many other men and women across Rwanda - are paying a heavy price for daring to express their opinions."
Ntaganda, an outspoken critic of the government, was arrested on June 24, six weeks before the August 9 presidential elections. Neither his party nor the FDU-Inkingi nor another opposition party, the Democratic Green Party, were able to participate in the elections, which Kagame, the incumbent, won with 93 percent of the vote.
The PS-Imberakuri was the only one of these three parties that succeeded in registering as a political party. In March 2010, members of the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), together with dissident members of the PS-Imberakuri, engineered a takeover of the PS-Imberakuri and replaced Ntaganda with a new and compliant leadership.
Ntaganda and party members faithful to him were subsequently subjected to other forms of intimidation and harassment. These included threats to themselves and their families, causing several party members to go into hiding or exile; administrative restrictions designed to paralyze their political activities; and a statement by members of the Senate's Political Affairs Commission in April that accusations of "genocide ideology" and "divisionism" against Ntaganda were well-founded.
The intimidation culminated in the arrest of Ntaganda in the early morning of June 24, just hours before a public demonstration planned by his party in Kigali. Several other members of the PS-Imberakuri and FDU-Inkingi were arrested later that day as they attempted to proceed with the demonstration. Further arrests of members of both parties took place in the following days.
Some of those arrested were released in July, after several days of ill-treatment in police custody; they were beaten, held in harsh conditions, and threatened with death in connection with their party activities. Some were handcuffed to each other for several days without interruption, including when using the toilet, eating, and sleeping.
Others remain in detention. On August 11, two PS-Imberakuri members, Sylver Mwizerwa and Donatien Mukeshimana, were sentenced to prison terms of three years and two years respectively for "rebellion" and destruction of property, allegedly for breaking into the PS-Imberakuri office after the landlord had reclaimed it.
"These prosecutions demonstrate that the Rwandan government won't stand for any criticism or opposition - despite its numerous public commitments to free speech and political pluralism," Bekele said. "These charges are wholly inappropriate, and the justice system is being used as a tool to stifle dissent and intimidate the public."
Human Rights Watch called on the government of Rwanda to take the following steps:
- Allow opposition parties, journalists, and others to express their views, including criticizing government policies, without fear for their safety;
- Take measures to restore and respect the independence of the judiciary;
- Accelerate the revision of the "genocide ideology" law, announced by the justice minister in 2010, to include a more precise definition of the crime, in order to prevent misuse of this charge for political or other purposes;
- Review the 2009 media law, which imposes burdensome restrictions on journalists, and decriminalize defamation.
The trials of Ntaganda and the Umurabyo journalists are a part of a longstanding pattern of government repression against opponents and critics in Rwanda. The repression intensified during the pre-election period in 2010, with the suspension of the two independent newspapers Umuseso and Umuvugizi; the murders of an Umuvugizi journalist, Jean-Léonard Rugambage, and the Green Party vice president, André Kagwa Rwisereka; and persistent threats against others opposed to the government or seen as sympathetic to the opposition. Contrary to some observers' expectations, the repression has not eased following the elections.
Accusations of "genocide ideology" and "divisionism" have often been used by the government to silence criticism. Other charges incurring heavy prison sentences, such as endangering national security and inciting public disorder, have also been levelled against opponents and critics.
Victoire Ingabire, president of the FDU-Inkingi, was arrested on October 14 and remains in prison awaiting trial. Her application for bail has been rejected several times. She was first arrested in April, accused of collaboration with armed groups, "genocide ideology" and "divisionism," and released on bail with travel restrictions. The current charges against her, yet to be confirmed by the prosecution, are believed to include forming an armed group and endangering state security. Members of her party have suffered repeated intimidation and threats.
In January, four former senior government and army officials turned outspoken critics - Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa, Patrick Karegeya, Gerald Gahima and Théogène Rudasingwa - were tried in absentia by a military court in Kigali and found guilty of endangering state security, destabilizing public order, "divisionism," defamation, and forming a criminal enterprise. Karegeya and Gahima were each sentenced to 20 years; Nyamwasa and Rudasingwa each to 24 years, with an additional charge of army desertion.
Although the government has publicly accused the four men of forming an armed group and of being behind a spate of grenade attacks in Rwanda in 2010, the trial did not deal with these allegations. It focused instead on public statements and documents published by the defendants in which they criticized the government and Kagame. On June 19, an assassination attempt was made in Johannesburg against Nyamwasa, who lives in exile in South Africa.
Less prominent individuals who are not politicians have also been severely punished for criticizing state policies. For example Abbé Emile Nsengiyumva, a priest in Rwamagana, eastern Rwanda, was arrested following a Christmas sermon in December in which he had opposed certain government policies, including plans to destroy thatched houses (known as nyakatsi) in favor of more durable housing and proposals to introduce family planning restrictions. In January he appeared before a court on accusations of endangering state security; he remains in preventive detention awaiting trial.