In the latest sign of rising tensions ahead of presidential elections in August, Rwandan authorities have arrested a leading opposition politician on charges of denying the 1994 genocide, spreading genocide ideology, and collaborating with a brutal Rwandan rebel army based in Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
Victoire Ingabire, head of the yet-to-be-registered United Democratic Forces and a former accountant who belongs to the ethnic Hutu majority, returned to Rwanda in January to register her party and launch a vigorous campaign against President Paul Kagame for August 2010 elections.
Since her return, Ingabire has been repeatedly questioned by police until eventually being arrested and charged in the capital, Kigali, Wednesday. On Thursday, she was released on bail on the condition that she report regularly to the authorities and not leave the country, according to Protais Mutembe, her lawyer.
The arrest of Ms. Ingabire comes just days after the arrest of top Rwandan Army generals on corruption charges, and weeks after a senior Rwandan diplomat fled to South Africa for safety, claiming that Mr. Kagame’s strong-armed rule had limited “the political space” in Rwanda.
"The prosecution's case against Ms Ingabire is based on facts and evidence," said Rwanda’s chief prosecutor, Martin Ngoga. “The actions that led to these charges against Ms. Ingabire are extremely serious and cannot go unpunished.”
Sixteen years after the Rwandan genocide, in which some 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed in a 100-day orgy of violence organized by ethnic Hutu extremists, politics and one’s view of history are often still colored by ethnic divides.
Some Rwandans see the Kagame regime as a dictatorship in which criticism is punished as a crime. But officials have argued that tight control has led to stability and economic growth in a country still scarred by horror – and Kagame supporters see opposition leaders like Ingabire as whipping up ethnic hatred, and returning the country to civil war.
“The Kagame regime maintains a siege mentality, which is the justification to beat up one’s opposition as genocidaires,” says Richard Cornwell, an independent political analyst based in Pretoria. By linking Ingabire to the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), the armed militia linked to the 1994 genocide, Kagame builds himself up as a savior and tears down his opponent as a criminal. “The Rwandans play for keeps,” Mr. Cornwell says. “You get your revenge in first.”
Ingabire: persecuted for challenging ruling elite
Ingabire adamantly denies official accusations against her. In a recent interview, she said instead that she was being persecuted for challenging the ruling elite.
To hear her side of the story, she is simply trying to open up the political dialogue to those whose views differ from those of Kagame, not just among Ingabire’s own Hutu majority but also among Tutsis as well. She is one of only a handful of genuine opposition figures, and given limitations on free expression, it is almost impossible to judge the opposition’s popularity, analysts say.
"We have to talk about us Hutus, us Tutsis, and to see how in the future we will not have the same problem," Ingabire said in a recent interview in her Kigali home. "I would like to resolve this cycle of violence in the country."
It is her discussion of “massacres” during the Rwandan genocide that Kagame’s government sees as dangerous revisionism. On her first full day back in the country, she gave a speech on the steps of Kigali’s main genocide memorial recognizing the slaughter of the Tutsis in 1994 but also demanding justice for crimes committed against the Hutus.
That, officials argue, amounts to denying the 1994 slaughter by promoting a “double genocide” theory. But Ingabire, in the interview, called the slaughter of Tutsis a genocide, while referring to "crimes against humanity" in regards to the Hutus.
Still, it is clear she has ruffled the Kagame camp. At an April 7 ceremony for the 16th anniversary of the beginning of the genocide, President Kagame criticized Ingabire by name for what he called her “revisionist” ideas.
“Some people just come from nowhere … useless people,” said Mr. Kagame. “I see every time in pictures some lady who had her deputy – a genocide criminal, talking about ‘there is genocide, but there is another’… that is politics. To that we say a big 'no.' And if anybody wants a fight, then we will give them a fight.”
In another case, Ingabire’s aide – who claims to have been outside Rwanda during the genocide – was recently sentenced to 17 years in jail after a previous case emerged linking him to the 1994 killings.
Kagame is often portrayed in the West as a repressive leader, something that confounds Shyaka Kanuma, editor of the Rwanda Focus newspaper. “He has won our admiration in Rwanda, because we don’t want Rwanda to go the way other African countries have gone,” says Mr. Kanuma.
But one human rights researcher, based in Kigali, says that the arrest of Ingabire is part of a wider crackdown, both within his own ruling circle and also in broader society. Last month, Rwanda suspended the country’s two remaining independent newspapers.
“There is a broader crackdown, not only against the opposition but also against media and NGOs and civil society groups,” says the researcher, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Rwanda is in a delicate state, because it is only 16 years old since the genocide, so of course there will be tensions. But you can’t build peace on the basis of repression. You’re just creating new tensions.”