Diane Rwigara, a former Rwandan Presidential hopeful, has gone on trial for “inciting insurrection or trouble among the population.” Ms. Rwigara was arrested last year along with her mother. Four more people (who are currently outside the country) are also wanted for allegedly assisting her. The trial is the latest event in a series demonstrating President Paul Kagame’s increasing desire to hang on to power through any means necessary.
International organizations have reacted to the arrest and trial of Ms. Rwigara, as she is one of the few serious contenders for the Presidency in 2017. This is despite her being barred from participating as a candidate in the election by the Rwandan Electoral Commission, an act often attributed to President Kagame’s dominance of Rwandan politics. Amnesty International’s Regional Director for East Africa, Great Lakes and the Horn Joan Nyanyuki said in a statement that “the Rwandan judiciary must ensure that this trial does not become just another means to persecute government critics… Given the number of flawed prosecutions in Rwanda in the past, ensuring a trial that meets rigorous international standards must be a priority for judicial authorities.”
The prosecutor Faustin Nkuzi, had a different take on the situation stating, “She intended to smear the country and its leadership with lies… She said that people are dying of poverty in Rwanda; this is a false claim aimed at insurrection.” However, even the Rwandan government notes the major issues the country has with poverty. Government statistics show that one in three Rwandan children is stunted by malnutrition.
The charges were brought against Ms. Rwigara in September last year, and were largely based on comments she made that were critical of the state – most particularly at a press conference in July 2017, when she launched a new activist group, the People Salvation Movement. Ms. Rwigara was also charged with “forging or alteration of documents” and “use of counterfeited documents.” Ms. Rwigara has said the charges are intended to smear her and to silence her family and supporters as punishment for her political ambitions.
President Kagame has been in power since 1994, when he led the Tutsi resistance against the Hutu government perpetuating the infamous genocide. His forces eventually ousted the government and ended the slaughter. President Kagame is a divisive figure: at once winning international acclaim for his early efforts to stabilize the country and respected for the low corruption level in the Rwandan government to this day, he is also regularly noted as having little tolerance for opposition and for removing competitors from the political sphere.
The arrest of Ms. Rwigara is further complicated by the fact that, like many fledgling democracies with powerful leaders, Rwanda passed a constitutional amendment in 2015 to allow President Kagame to run for more terms thus, prolonging the time that President Kagame can hold onto power. Prior to the referendum, President Kagame would have been required to step down last year instead, he was able to run for a third term. In both the referendum and resulting election in which President Kagame won in both cases with over 95% of the vote, there were accusations of tampering and intimidation against opposition parties and voters.
The conduct of the trial will show to the world the particular position that Rwandan democracy finds itself in. Firstly, it will demonstrate the extent to which “inciting insurrection” is synonymous with “criticizing the President” and hence, limiting the freedom of speech so vital in a democracy. Secondly, it will show whether the judicial system still has the ability to act independently of the executive and act as some degree of check on President Kagame’s power. While all previous indicators show that the trial will go exactly how the President wants it to go, there is still time for Rwanda to change course away from a slide into dictatorship.
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