Africa Great Lakes Democracy Watch

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Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Political repression in Rwanda in lead up to poll

Insecurity and political repression are increasing in advance of Rwanda's August 2010 presidential elections, Human Rights Watch warned Monday.

In the last two days, an independent journalist has been killed, the leader of an opposition party has been detained by the police, and other opposition party members have been arrested.

"The security situation is rapidly deteriorating," said Rona Peligal, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "With only 45 days left before the election, the government is lashing out to silence its opponents and critics."

The Rwandan government should investigate all incidents of violence and ensure that opposition activists and journalists are able to carry out their legitimate activities in safety, Human Rights Watch said.

Jean-Leonard Rugambage, a journalist for the newspaper Umuvugizi, was shot dead shortly after 10pm on June 24 outside his home in Nyamirambo, in the capital, Kigali. His colleagues and other sources in Rwanda told Human Rights Watch that the assailant appeared to be waiting for the journalist as he returned home.

As Rugambage drove up to his gate, a man approached his car and fired several shots at close range, hitting him in the head and chest. Rugambage died on the spot. The assailant then drove off. Police arrived on the scene and took Rugambage's body to the police hospital in Kacyiru for autopsy. The police stated on June 25 that they were investigating his death.

Umuvugizi, an independent newspaper that has often been critical of the government, had published an article online on the morning Rugambage was killed, alleging that the Rwandan government was behind the attempted murder of a former Rwandan general, Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa, in South Africa on June 19, and implicating senior officials. General Kayumba, once a close ally of President Paul Kagame and a former chief-of-staff of the Rwandan army, has become an increasingly outspoken critic of the government since fleeing to South Africa in February 2010. Umuvugizi's editor said that Rugambage had been investigating the murder attempt on Kayumba and had reported being under increased surveillance in the days leading up to his death.

"We are shocked and saddened by the death of this courageous journalist," Peligal said. "Freedom of expression is already severely restricted in Rwanda, but the death of Rugambage is a further chilling blow to investigative journalism and, more broadly, to freedom of expression in the country."

Human Rights Watch called on the Rwandan authorities to ensure that those responsible for Rugambage's murder are brought to justice without delay, and to ensure the security and protection of other journalists.

In the early hours of June 24, police entered the house of Bernard Ntaganda, leader of the opposition party PS-Imberakuri, and took him away for questioning. He has spent two days in police custody and is believed to be detained at Kicukiro police station. The exact accusations against him are not confirmed, but it is thought that the police have questioned him, among other things, about his alleged involvement in an attempted arson attack on the house of former party vice-president, Christine Mukabunani, and inciting ethnic divisions.

Members of the PS-Imberakuri reported that the police raided Ntaganda's house and the party's office and took away documents and other belongings. By June 25, the party's flag and sign had been taken down from their office.

Later on the morning of June 24, several members of PS-Imberakuri were rounded up by the police and taken into custody after they gathered outside the US embassy; they had gone there to ask for help following Ntaganda's arrest. Some were released, but several, including the party's secretary-general, Théobald Mutarambirwa, remained in detention in various locations in Kigali on June 25.

Also on the morning of June 24, police arrested several members of the FDU-Inkingi opposition party, who had gathered outside the Justice Ministry to protest a court case against their party president, Victoire Ingabire. Most were released on June 25, but the party's secretary-general, Sylvain Sibomana, treasurer, Alice Muhirwa, and Kigali representative, Theoneste Sibomana, were still in detention at the police station in Kicukiro on June 26. Some FDU-Inkingi members reported that when the police broke up their gathering, the police told them that they should stop being members of the party. Police also surrounded Ingabire's house at about 6am on June 24, and stayed there for most of the day.

Members of both parties reported being beaten by the police.

On June 25, the Commissioner General of Police issued a statement saying that about 40 individuals had attempted to hold a demonstration without a permit, that 22 people had been arrested and questioned, 14 had been released and eight were being held for further questioning.

"These incidents are occurring at the very moment that parties are putting forward candidates for the presidential elections," Peligal said. "The government is ensuring that opposition parties are unable to function and are excluded from the political process."

The killing of Rugambage was not the first incident of violence against journalists. In February 2007, a group of assailants attacked Umuvugizi's editor, Jean-Bosco Gasasira, in a near fatal incident outside his house, after he spoke out at a presidential news conference about the harassment of journalists. No one has been brought to justice for the attack.

In July 2009, the information minister publicly declared that "the days of the destructive press are numbered," referring to Umuvugizi and a second independent newspaper, Umuseso. Within 24 hours, the national prosecutor's office had summoned Gasasira to answer allegations of defamation, a criminal offense punishable with imprisonment. Gasasira was convicted and sentenced to pay a large fine. Umuseso faced similar defamation charges for exposing scandals involving public figures. In February, a court sentenced its former editor, Charles Kabonero, to a year in prison and the current editor, Didas Gasana, and a reporter, Richard Kayigamba, to six months each. The editors of both newspapers have fled the country after receiving repeated threats.

On April 13, the Media High Council, a government-aligned body in charge of regulating the media, suspended Umuseso and Umuvuzigi for six months, and then called for their definitive closure. It alleged, among other things, that some of their articles constituted a threat to national security. The newspapers' appeal against the suspension is still pending. The suspension has effectively shut down most independent reporting in advance of the elections, since Umuseso and Umuvugizi were among the very few active independent newspapers left in Rwanda. Umuvugizi has since posted an electronic version of its newspaper, but access to its website has been blocked inside Rwanda.

Incidents of harassment and intimidation of members of opposition parties have steadily increased in the months leading up to the August elections. Ntaganda and Ingabire, as well as their party members, have been especially targeted. Unless the situation changes in the very near future, none of the three main opposition parties (PS-Imberakuri, FDU-Inkingi, and the Democratic Green Party of Rwanda) will be able to take part in the elections. Parties and independent candidates must submit their candidacies to the National Electoral Commission by July 2.


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