(New York) - The Rwandan government's decision to deny a work visa to Human Rights Watch's representative in Kigali demonstrates a pattern of increasing restrictions on free expression in Rwanda ahead of August's presidential elections, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch will appeal the decision and continue working on human rights issues in Rwanda.
"In the last few weeks, we've seen a real crackdown on critics," said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "The Rwandan government is doing everything it can to silence independent voices before the elections."
On April 23, 2010, officials from the Directorate General of Immigration informed Carina Tertsakian, Human Rights Watch's senior researcher on Rwanda, that she would not be granted a work visa. They alleged anomalies in her visa application, specifically signatures and dates on the documents she had submitted.
Staff at Human Rights Watch's headquarters in New York had attested in writing to the authenticity of all the documents and signatures, but the immigration officials described their explanations as "unsatisfactory." However, the officials had not made any attempt to contact Human Rights Watch's headquarters or the individuals whose signatures they had questioned.
The immigration officials refused to put their decision in writing. They told Tertsakian that as a British national, she could not exceed her 90-day legal stay in the country, which expires on April 24.
Gagnon was in Kigali the week of April 19 to try to meet Rwandan officials about this matter. Kenneth Roth, executive director at Human Rights Watch, sent a private letter to President Paul Kagame setting out in detail concerns at the handling of Tertsakian's visa application and reiterating that all the documents submitted in the original and second application were authentic. Rwandan immigration officials did not respond to Gagnon's requests for a meeting.
Human Rights Watch has been working on human rights in Rwanda since before the 1994 genocide. However, in the past two years, the Rwandan government has increasingly obstructed the work of the organization. In September and December 2008, it twice blocked the entry of the late Alison Des Forges, a renowned Rwanda expert and Human Rights Watch's senior advisor on the Great Lakes region. In the last few weeks, Rwandan government rhetoric against human rights organizations has increased, with senior officials singling out Human Rights Watch for particularly fierce public criticism. There has also been an increase in articles hostile to Human Rights Watch in pro-government media.
Rejection of work visa application
Carina Tertsakian, a British national, arrived in Rwanda on January 25, 2010, and was initially granted a work visa. On March 3, immigration officials questioned her on the paperwork relating to her visa application, pointing to a mistaken date and alleging differences in her colleagues' signatures on the documents. They confiscated her passport. The following day, they summoned her again with a new set of questions again relating to dates and signatures.
On March 8, Tertsakian was formally summoned by the police Criminal Investigations Department (CID) to appear the following day. The police told her that she was suspected of using forged documents and questioned her on the same points as those raised by the immigration officials. By then, Human Rights Watch had submitted two letters from its headquarters, confirming that all the documents were authentic. The officials did not appear to take these letters into account.
On March 10, immigration officials returned Tertsakian's passport, but cancelled her work visa. The immigration officials refused to provide a written explanation for this cancellation; they told her she could submit a second visa application.
On March 16, Tertsakian submitted a second application, with a notarized affidavit from Human Rights Watch's Legal Director attesting to the veracity and authenticity of all the documents. More than a month passed before immigration officials responded to the second application - the usual turnaround time is three days. Rwandan immigration officials communicated their visa denial to Tertsakian on April 23, the day before her legal stay in Rwanda was due to expire.
Crackdown on freedom of expression
These developments take place against a backdrop of increasing intolerance of dissent and criticism in the run-up to presidential elections in August.
Members of opposition parties have been harassed, threatened, and intimidated. Two of the new opposition parties - the FDU-Inkingi and the Democratic Green Party of Rwanda - have been prevented from registering and have been repeatedly obstructed by the authorities. Meetings of the Democratic Green Party and the PS-Imberakuri (a third opposition party) have been disrupted several times, sometimes violently. The PS-Imberakuri eventually managed to register, but has since been hijacked by "dissident members" widely believed to have been manipulated by the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) to silence the party's president, Bernard Ntaganda. Ntaganda himself was summoned before the Senate at the end of 2009 on accusations of "genocide ideology." He has not been charged, but in April 2010, members of the Senate's political commission expressed their view that these accusations were well-founded.
Victoire Ingabire, leader of the FDU-Inkingi, has been questioned by the police on six occasions since February 2010 (she returned to Rwanda in January 2010 after many years in exile), effectively paralyzing her party's activities. In March, police stopped her at the airport and prevented her from travelling. On April 21, she was arrested and charged with "genocide ideology," "divisionism," and collaboration with terrorist groups, including the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (Forces démocratiques pour la libération du Rwanda - FDLR), an armed group active in the Democratic Republic of Congo, composed in part of individuals who took part in the 1994 genocide. Ingabire was released on bail on April 22, but is not allowed to leave the country or to go outside the capital, Kigali. There has been an unrelenting public campaign against her in the pro-government media, relating primarily to public statements in which she criticized the government and called for justice for killings of Hutu by the RPF.
Journalists have also faced numerous problems in the course of their work. The state prosecutor has sued the two independent newspapers, Umuseso and Umuvugizi for defamation, a criminal offense punishable with imprisonment. Both cases are currently at the appeal stage. On April 13, the Media High Council, a government-aligned body responsible for regulating the media, suspended the two newspapers for six months. Umuseso and Umuvugizi are among the few independent media left in Rwanda; both have published articles critical of the government.
More broadly, Human Rights Watch has found that many ordinary Rwandans are unable to express their opinions openly. Those who voice criticism of the government or its policies risk being labelled opponents, accused of being in league with opposition parties or with people who allegedly want to topple the government, or accused of "genocide ideology" - a vaguely defined criminal offense which carries penalties of 10 to 25 years' imprisonment.
After years of intimidation of civil society activists, very few independent human rights organizations are left in Rwanda. Those who are still trying to document human rights abuses are facing constant threats and obstacles. For example, in the run-up to the 2008 parliamentary elections, the League for Human Rights in the Great Lakes Region (Ligue des droits de la personne dans la région des Grands Lacs - LDGL) was prevented from deploying its full election observer mission and was attacked by the National Electoral Commission before its report came out. Members of the human rights organization LIPRODHOR have also faced serious threats over several years, causing many of their key members to leave the country for their own safety, and leaving the organization significantly weakened.