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Rwanda: Next month's election to take place amid 'chilling atmosphere' of repression

Two decades of attacks on political opponents, independent journalists and human rights activists have created a climate of fear in Rwanda ahead of next month’s election, Amnesty International warned in a new report today (7 July).

The report, Setting the scene for elections: Two decades of silencing dissent in Rwanda, shows how opposition politicians, journalists and human rights activists have faced restrictions on their rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly in the two decades since the genocide in the country. They have been jailed, physically attacked - even killed - and forced into exile or silence.

Amnesty is urging the Rwandan government to prevent harassment of opposition candidates and their supporters ahead of the 4 August poll, and to initiate far-reaching reforms to open up political space before the next election in 2024, allowing genuine debate and diverse opinions to be freely expressed.

Muthoni Wanyeki, Amnesty International's Regional Director for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes, said:

“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.

“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 practise self-censorship and that political debate is limited in advance of the elections.”

Opponents found dead, subject to smear campaigns

In the most recent case, Jean Damascene Habarugira, a local party representative of the unregistered opposition United Democratic Force (FDU-Inkingi) party, went missing in May after being called to meet an official responsible for village security. The FDU-Inkingi said that Jean Damascene’s family were called to collect his body from hospital a few days later. The party said 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, Diane Rwigara announced that she would stand for the presidency as an independent candidate. In the months before declaring her candidacy, Rwigara had been outspoken about issues such as poverty, injustice, insecurity and lack of free speech. 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.

Rwigara and Philippe Mpayimana, another presidential hopeful, both complained that their representatives had also 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.

Journalists, civil society targeted

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. Last year, at least three journalists were detained after investigating sensitive issues, such as corruption or possible suspicious deaths. 

Human rights activists who have criticised government policy or have been perceived as being opponents of the government have faced various forms of attack and restriction. Meanwhile, NGOs are subject to onerous - and costly - registration procedures. The vague charge of promoting “genocide ideology” has also been levelled at international and domestic human rights organisations that have criticised the government.

Kagame’s third term

The incumbent president Paul Kagame has already served two terms but will stand for re-election following a referendum in December 2015 which made 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. Only 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 today.



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