Rwandan newspaper editor released

Just the news I’d been hoping for! Agnes Uwimana Nkusi was released three weeks earlier than expected on 18 June. In her working life, she was the editor of the tabloid newspaper Umurabyo but I was thinking joyfully about her personal life - the reunion between Agnes, her four children and her mother.

Agnes has just completed almost all of her four-year sentence for ‘threatening national security’. That sounds like a serious crime until you find out she is no criminal. In fact all she did was publish articles critical of President Kagame and the Rwandan authorities.

Published during the lead-up to the presidential elections of 2010, the articles criticised her government’s record on topics such as security, justice and corruption. This is something anyone in the UK can read any day in the UK press – and not just in the tabloids. But in Rwanda, such ‘cheek’ can cost dear.

Agnes and her deputy editor Saidati Mukakibibi were initially charged with very serious offences, including defamation, ‘minimising the genocide’ and ‘divisionism’. These laws are so vaguely defined that judges are left to interpret them as they see fit.

The first trial found them both guilty.  Agnes faced a 17-year prison sentence and Saidati 7 years. They took their case to Rwanda’s Supreme Court, where all but one of the convictions were thrown out and their sentences reduced.

We have now reached the end of this particular story. Saidati has served her two years and Agnes, now released, is free to continue… but to continue what?

A chill wind blows through the Rwandan media. Any journalist who dares to criticise the government runs the risk of having their paper suspended or closed down, of being convicted of serious crimes such as ‘threatening national security’ or even being murdered!

I can’t see this changing until the Rwandan government stops its crackdown against criticism, and allows a free press to develop.

In the meantime, I am happy for Agnes and Saidati.

They reminded us of how important Amnesty International was to them in their personal struggle, and how the struggle must go on. Here is an extract from a letter we got from Saidati.

'Dear Sisters, dear Brothers,

It is a real honour to write to you today to thank you with all my heart for the gestures of solidarity I received during my detention. The many days of suffering would have been without meaning if it had not been for your voices.

I wish you full success in your work, and I am ready to keep on fighting with you, for peace, freedom of opinion and expression, and all rights, so that we can make the world a better place.'

Rona Keen is the Country Coordinator for Rwanda.

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