Rwanda: Decades of attacks, repression and killings set the scene for next month’s election
Two decades of attacks on the political opposition, independent media and human rights defenders have created a climate of fear in Rwanda ahead of next month’s election, Amnesty International warned in a new report today.
The organization is urging the government to prevent harassment of opposition candidates and their supporters ahead of the August poll, but also to initiate far-reaching reforms that will open up political space before the 2024 elections, allowing genuine debate and diverse opinions to be freely expressed.
“Since the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front took power 23 years ago, Rwandans have faced huge, and often deadly, obstacles to participating in public life and voicing criticism of government policy. The climate in which the upcoming elections take place is the culmination of years of repression,” said Muthoni Wanyeki, Amnesty International’s Regional Director for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes.
“Killings and disappearances in 2017 need to be placed in the context of many years of similar violence for which no one has yet been held to account. In this chilling atmosphere, it is unsurprising that would-be government critics practice self-censorship and that political debate is limited in advance of the elections.”
The report documents how opposition politicians, journalists and human rights defenders have faced restrictions on their rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly in the two decades since the genocide. They have been jailed, physically attacked – even killed – and forced into exile or silence.
In the most recent case, Jean Damascene Habarugira, a local party representative of the unregistered opposition United Democratic Force (FDU-Inkingi) party went missing after being called to meet an official responsible for village security. The FDU-Inkingi stated in a press release that Jean Damascene’s family were called to collect his dead body from hospital a few days later on 8 May 2017. The FDU-Inkingi asserted that he had been murdered because of his opposition to the government’s agricultural planning policy.
Potential presidential candidates have also been targeted in the lead-up to the elections. On 3 May 2017, Diane Rwigara announced that she would stand for the Presidency as an independent candidate. In the months before declaring her candidacy, Diane Rwigara had been outspoken about issues such as poverty, injustice, insecurity and the lack of freedom of expression. Just days after she announced her candidacy, nude photos of her were leaked and circulated on social media, in what many considered a smear campaign.
Diane Rwigara and Philippe Mpayimana, another presidential hopeful, both complained their representatives had faced harassment and intimidation while collecting the signatures needed in support of their nomination. The National Electoral Commission did not include them in the provisional list of qualified candidates, saying that their documents were incomplete. They were given five days to finalise their paperwork. The final list of candidates is due to be announced today.
The Rwandan government has also suppressed media freedom. Journalists have been imprisoned, harassed and even killed, with many being forced into exile over the years. In 2016, at least three journalists were detained after investigating sensitive issues, such as corruption or possible suspicious deaths.
Independent human rights defenders who criticize government policy or are perceived as opponents to government have faced different forms of attacks and restrictions in Rwanda. NGOs are subject to onerous – and costly – registration procedures. The nebulous charge of promoting ‘genocide ideology’ has been levied at international and domestic human rights organizations who criticize the government.
“Rwanda’s history of political repression, attacks on opposition figures and dissenting voices in the context of previous elections, stifles political debate and makes those who might speak out think twice before taking the risk,” said Muthoni Wanyeki.
“The Rwandan government should start by preventing restrictions on, or harassment of, opposition candidates and their supporters in the forthcoming August 2017 elections. It should commit to enabling Rwandans to fully enjoy their rights to free expression and association.”
Rwandans will go to the polls on 4 August 2017 to elect their next president.
Incumbent President Paul Kagame has already served two terms but will stand for re-election following a referendum in December 2015 which ushered in constitutional changes allowing him to contest a third term. Many Rwandan and international observers expect him to be re-elected.
Five opposition and independent candidates submitted their nomination documents in June 2017. Only Paul Kagame and Frank Habineza, of the Democratic Green Party of Rwanda, made the provisional list of qualified candidates published on 27 June. The other nominees were given five days to complete their files and the final list of candidates qualified to stand in the election is due to be published by the National Electoral Commission on 7 July.