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(Nairobi) – The leadership of the Rwandan League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights has been ousted because of its independent stance. People believed to be favorable to the government have taken over the organization in what has become a typical state tactic to silence human rights defenders.

The organization, known as LIPRODHOR, is the country’s last effective human rights group. On July 21, 2013, a small number of members organized a meeting which voted in a new board. The action violated the organization’s rules and the national law on nongovernmental organizations. Several members of the ousted board are known for their independence and courage in denouncing state abuses. On July 24, the Rwanda Governance Board – the state body with oversight of national nongovernmental groups – wrote a letter to the organization taking note of the decision and recognizing the new board.

“International actors should condemn this blatant hijacking of Rwanda’s last independent group that exposes human rights abuses,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “If LIPRODHOR is silenced, it will be a big loss for all Rwandans.”

Under Articles 3(7) and 12(3) of the African Charter on Democracy, Elections, and Governance, which Rwanda has signed and ratified, citizens have a right to effective participation in the affairs of their country, and the state has a duty to “create conducive conditions for civil society organizations to exist and operate within the law.”

According to LIPRODHOR’s regulations and article 27 of the law on national nongovernmental organizations, any conflict that arises in the organization must first be referred to that organization’s internal conflict resolution organ. The organizers of the July 21 meeting bypassed this step. The newly elected president told Human Rights Watch that he had advised people at the meeting that they should go through the conflict resolution committee, but claimed that members at the meeting “did not think it would work.”

Several of the group’s members told Human Rights Watch that the July 21 meeting did not follow the usual procedures. They said that the organizers had called selected members but had not sent out a written notice. Key leaders of the organization, including the president, the vice-president, and the executive secretary, were not notified about the meeting.

The organization’s regulations specify that members should be notified in writing at least eight days before such a meeting. The ousted president told Human Rights Watch that neither he, nor his vice-president, nor the staff had seen any such letter, and that when they asked the meeting’s organizers for a copy, they failed to produce it. Human Rights Watch also asked one of the organizers for a copy, but he was unable to provide one.

Participants said the organizers presented the meeting as a “consultation” to review a July 3 decision by the board to withdraw from the Collective of Leagues and Organizations for the Defense of Human Rights in Rwanda (CLADHO), an umbrella body for human rights organizations. LIPRODHOR and two other member organizations of the umbrella group had withdrawn because of internal divisions, lack of support for member organizations, and disagreements over alleged irregularities in CLADHO’s board election.

However, the July 21 meeting went beyond reviewing this decision and called a vote for a new LIPRODHOR board. One of the meeting’s organizers was elected the new president. After the fact, the meeting was described as an extraordinary general assembly to the Rwanda Governance Board. The media had been informed about the meeting beforehand and covered its outcome.

The election of the new board violated LIPRODHOR’s statutes, which specify that elections may take place only during a general assembly. In addition, it is unclear whether the July 21 meeting had a quorum. The group’s constitution states that a general assembly “shall validly meet by the absolute majority of full members.” The December 2012 membership list has 115 names, but the newly elected president told Human Rights Watch that only 47 people attended the meeting.

The Rwanda Governance Board’s swift recognition of the outcome of the meeting, without investigating the concerns of the group’s ousted leadership, raises legitimate questions about the government body’s motivation. The Rwanda Governance Board should set aside its decision, insist that Rwandan law and LIPRODHOR’s statutes are observed, and allow human rights organizations to work freely, Human Rights Watch said.

Sheikh Saleh Habimana, head of political parties, nongovernmental organizations, and faith-based organizations for the Rwanda Governance Board, denied that the body has a responsibility to ensure that organizations follow the law. He told Human Rights Watch that the Rwanda Governance Board could not question the decision of a general assembly and could only be notified of the outcome. “The former LIPRODHOR board can go to court,” he said. “If the courts decide this was a bad decision, then we will remove our approval.”

On July 24, LIPRODHOR, through its ousted president, filed a legal challenge against the July 21 decision and sought a temporary injunction. The court case is pending.

“The Rwanda Governance Board and the new LIPRODHOR board are passing the ball back and forth,” Bekele said. “A group of people take over an organization illegally and say, ‘The decision is now legal.’ The government body charged with oversight says, ‘It is not our responsibility to ensure compliance with the law, we just note the outcome.’ These administrative tricks have been used before to silence dissent in Rwanda.”

On July 24 the police canceled a training workshop organized by LIPRODHOR on submitting evidence to the Universal Periodic Review – a United Nations Human Rights Council procedure to review the human rights situation in each country. The police spokesman, Theos Badege, told Human Rights Watch that the police had acted on the instructions of the Rwanda Governance Board.

During the forced handover between the old and new boards, police threatened LIPRODHOR staff with imprisonment if they did not cooperate with the new board. Several members told Human Rights Watch that they felt their security was at risk.

“Partners of Rwanda who pay lip service to supporting civil society should step up to defend LIPRODHOR,” Bekele said. “Otherwise, there will soon be no organizations left in the country to provide independent information.”

Rwanda’s domestic human rights movement has been almost destroyed by a combination of state intimidation, threats, manipulation, infiltration, and administrative obstacles. Most leading human rights activists have fled the country. The government’s actions to silence human rights groups are part of a broader pattern of intolerance of criticism, which extends to independent journalists and opposition parties.

LIPRODHOR is the last effective national independent human rights organization in Rwanda. Once one of the most dynamic groups, which regularly published reports and set up pioneering projects after the 1994 genocide to monitor trials and prison conditions, it has been plagued with problems for more than a decade. By 2013, despite limited resources and financial difficulties, it had continued monitoring human rights abuses and organizing training and advocacy activities, but rarely published reports.

LIPRODHOR has been singled out by the government in its crackdown on human rights groups. In 2004 the parliament requested the dissolution of the group and several others on the recommendation of a parliamentary commission on genocide ideology, which alleged that these organizations supported genocidal ideas. After receiving personal threats, about a dozen leading members of the group fled the country. Several others left in the ensuing years.

In 2008 the National Electoral Commission prevented the group, at the last minute, from monitoring the 2008 parliamentary elections.

One of the most divisive government tactics used against civil society organizations has been infiltration. LIPRODHOR is just the latest in a string of human rights organizations taken over by people who are close to the Rwandan government or who are unwilling to denounce human rights abuses. Once in leadership posts, these people have blocked investigations on sensitive issues as well as publications that could be deemed critical of the government, and have frozen out independently minded members. Several leading human rights organizations have been paralyzed in this way.

Human Rights Watch has documented a similar pattern of government tactics against opposition parties. In March 2010 the opposition PS-Imberakuri was taken over by a dissident faction favorable to the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). This faction ousted the party’s president, Bernard Ntaganda, and replaced him with a more compliant leader, Christine Mukabunani.

Ntaganda was arrested three months later, just weeks before the 2010 presidential elections. He was tried in 2011 and sentenced to four years in prison for “divisionism” and endangering national security. Party members loyal to him have also been arrested, harassed, and threatened, and have been unable to pursue their political activities. Meanwhile, the faction headed by Mukabunani has been allowed to operate and is recognized by the government.

In late 2009 Ntaganda was summoned by the senate and questioned on accusations of genocide ideology. The senate’s Political Affairs Commission found that accusations of genocide ideology and divisionism against him were well-founded.

Other groups have also been co-opted and forced into structures that the government can control. For example, the Civil Society Platform, a broad umbrella group which the government has strongly encouraged organizations to join, claims to be independent but regularly aligns itself with the government. At times, it has sought to defend the government against criticism and to downplay the scale of its abuses. The Civil Society Platform’s election observation mission produced an overwhelmingly positive report on the 2010 presidential elections, despite a brutal government crackdown on opposition parties, journalists, and critics in the pre-election period.

On occasion, the Civil Society Platform, as well as CLADHO, has publicly criticized independent organizations. In 2010 CLADHO publicly denounced a collective civil society report on the human rights situation in Rwanda submitted to the UN Human Rights Council in advance of Rwanda’s Universal Periodic Review in 2011.

The report was coordinated by the League for Human Rights in the Great Lakes Region, of which LIPRODHOR is a member. In a public statement on September 3, 2010, CLADHO disowned the report and called for the prosecution of those who had drafted and distributed it.

The League for Human Rights itself has been targeted by the government on several occasions. As a regional organization, it has a different status from LIPRODHOR but has maintained a strongly independent line on human rights in Rwanda, leading to threats against several of its leading members.

The recent decision by LIPRODHOR to withdraw from CLADHO takes place against a background of longstanding internal tensions within the umbrella group, between member organizations that have tried to maintain independence from the government and those that have refrained from criticizing the government. Since the late 1990s, people who are unwilling to criticize the government have dominated CLADHO.

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