As relatives of Rwanda’s vocal critic of Paul Kagame celebrated Diane Rwigara’s Friday release on bail, optimistic observers are hoping that the East African nation is opening a new chapter of political tolerance.
Rwigara, who has repeatedly accused Kagame of persecuting his critics, was jailed along with her mother in October last year.
The two women were charged with incitement and forgery.
While Kagame is praised for restoring stability and achieving rapid economic growth for his country after the tragic genocide in 1994, several rights group accuse his government of suppressing dissident and freedoms of information and expression.
Over the past one month, three incidents have happened that give hope that the political space could be opening up.
Opposition wins parliamentary seats
In September, the only tolerated opposition party in Rwanda, the Democratic Green Party won parliamentary seats for the first time.
While the ruling Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) still had a dominant majority, winning 40 out of elective 53 seats, the opposition’s Frank Habineza celebrated the milestone.
“I think it is a positive step forward. Our say was rarely given consideration because we lacked power,’‘ Habineza said.
‘‘Now we will continue our work in parliament by participating in formulation of laws and policies that are in the spirit of democracy, freedom and development.’‘
Kagame pardons Victoire Ingabire
Three weeks ago, Rwanda’s cabinet approved a presidential pardon of over 2000 convicts, who included opposition leader Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza.
Ingabire, who heads the unregistered FDU-Ikingi opposition party, had been convicted in 2012 for conspiring to form an armed group to undermine the government and for seeking to minimize the 1994 genocide.
She had returned from exile in the Netherlands to contest a presidential election in January 2010, but was barred from standing after being accused of genocide denial.
Rwigara is granted bail
On Friday 5 October, a Rwandan High Court judge ruled that Diane Rwigara and her mother should be released immediately but cautioned that they could not leave the capital Kigali “without the prosecutor’s authorisation”.
Claire Bukuba dismissed the prosecution’s claims that the Rwigaras are a risk to the country’s national security, ruling that Rwandan law “provides that the defence can request bail”.
Following the release on bail of Diane Rwigara, who tried to run against Kagame in the 2017 presidential election, her sister Anne said she hoped this was ‘the end of harrassment’.
A spokesman for Rwanda’s top prosecutor said that the court decision was based on law and must be respected.
“We will consider whether to challenge it or not and of course continue to prepare our trial”, Faustin Nkusi said.
Ingabire, who also attended Friday’s court session, called on the government to release other ‘political prisoners’, members of her organisation who are still in detention.
“I hope this is the beginning of the opening of political space in Rwanda”, she said.
While welcoming new political parties to parliament, Kagame was quick to make his expectations of harmony and cooperation clear.
‘‘We want thoughts and ideas that bring us forward. And we will not be afraid to tell you that we have no room for those that take us backwards,’‘ Kagame told members as he officiated the swearing in ceremony two weeks ago.
RPF spokesman Wellars Gasamagera had also made it clear that while the winning of parliamentary seats by the opposition broadens the political space in the country, ‘not much would change’.
“Rwandans adopted dialogue and consensus politics and the two new political parties agree with that policy and therefore we will keep to it,” Gasamagera said.