Editor’s Note: CNN is committed to covering gender inequality wherever it occurs in the world. This story is part of As Equals, a year-long series.
Kigali, Rwanda -- In the darkness of the Kigali night, Eric walks through a maze of cement homes crowned in corrugated metal. Using his phone he lights the road under his feet, a path of compressed red earth still drying out from the rainy season.
After nearly an hour of walking through a series of dizzying hills that make up the Rwandan capital, he reaches his safe house. Eric – whose name has been changed for his safety – says he’s being watched by the government.
Staying more than one night is too risky. Tomorrow he’ll move again.
Inside a two-room house, illuminated by a single light affixed to a cement wall, he starts his story. It begins with one name: Diane.
Diane Rwigara is a former presidential hopeful and women’s rights activist who is currently in prison outside central Kigali awaiting trial.
The 37-year-old accountant, a fierce critic of Rwandan President Paul Kagame, launched her election bid three months ahead of the August 2017 vote. She was Kagame’s sole female challenger in the poll.
But her campaign was short-lived. Electoral authorities disqualified her, claiming she doctored the number of signatures needed to qualify and accusing her of submitting the names of dead people, which she denied.
With her presidential bid over, Rwigara launched the People Salvation Movement (Itabaza), an activist group to “encourage Rwandans to hold their government accountable.” Shortly after its inception, she was arrested on charges of incitement and fraud, which her family and supporters say are politically motivated.
Rwigara’s supporters like Eric, who fear for their lives, say a state-sanctioned atmosphere of harassment, censorship and threat of violence make it nearly impossible to speak out against the government.
After Rwigara’s August arrest, Eric was detained overnight with around 10 other supporters. Speaking to CNN in a Kigali safe house, he molds his hand into the shape of a gun and places two fingers inside his mouth. This, he says, is how he was told by police to stop supporting her.
Another Rwigara supporter who was with Eric at the time says he watched an officer threaten him with a gun, adding that he was beaten by another group of police also on the scene.
Rwanda is often described as the best place in the world for women in politics, with more female lawmakers in parliament than any other country, but it’s not the case if you challenge President Kagame, Eric says.
Last year, Kagame won the presidential election Rwigara had hoped to contest with almost 99% of the vote.
The 60-year-old – who in 2015 cleared the way to potentially stay in power until 2034 – has been president since 2000, but has long been an instrumental leader in the country’s modern history.
In 1994, Kagame led the armed wing of the Rwandan Patriotic Front or RPF (what is now the ruling party) into Kigali. That act helped to bring an end to a genocide that saw an estimated 800,000 people killed – mostly from the Tutsi ethnic group – in just 100 days. Two million people also fled the country.
Since then, Kagame has been widely credited with the nation’s remarkable turnaround. His fiscal and social policies are widely touted by supporters – and many in the international community – as a blueprint for success in the region.
Part of that success has been measured by his commitment to gender parity. A post-genocide population skewed Rwanda’s female population to 70%. Kagame placed value on women’s roles and spearheaded many reforms to help build women’s capacity in civil society.
The most notable is a constitutional law that requires at least 30% of all parliamentary seats to be occupied by women. Today, Rwanda far surpasses that quota, with 61.3% of its parliament made up of female lawmakers (compared with the global average at 23.8%). Four out of seven Supreme Court justices are women, and the Ministry of Gender and Family Promotion ensures gender representation and equality in local politics across the country.
Female lawmakers have been praised for supporting policy changes around domestic violence, land rights and inheritance. But Rwigara’s supporters say this is a veneer masking a lack of real opposition and freedoms.
In a modern, luxurious Kigali villa only miles away from Eric’s hideout, Rwigara’s sister Anne and brother Arioste explain more.
Diane Rwigara lived much of her life outside Rwanda, traveling between California and Kigali. A family photo hanging on the wall of the living room shows a young, smiling Rwigara holding onto the shoulders of her father. She, like her father Assinapol Rwigara – a successful businessman – were at one time strong Kagame supporters.
“Blinded by how clean the streets are, how beautiful the city is… she thought it was the miracle country that had been talked about,” Anne says.
“But when she got on site it was a different story.”
In 2015, Rwigara returned to Rwanda from California after her father died in a car crash in suspicious circumstances. The official police report said that a truck driver had crashed into Assinapol’s car, which resulted in his death. But the Rwigaras allege that members of Kagame’s party harassed Assinapol – who was an important financier of the RPF in the early 1990s – after he refused to allow the government to seize control of his business and that he was killed on the president’s orders.
The Rwigaras wrote to Kagame calling the crash an assassination and asking for a full and transparent inquiry.
“They will come in and take over what you worked for your whole life,” Anne says.
“Next thing you know you won’t have that business, you will be working for them… at best… they will kick you out of the business.”
Rwanda’s National Police, the Office of the President and the RPF have not responded to CNN’s request for comment.
Anne Rwigara looks outside, beyond the metal gates that guard the house.
There, two stationary cars, sit for hours at a time watching the residence. Anne and Arioste say they are government surveillance vehicles.
The 2018 World Bank Doing Business Report named Rwanda the second-best place to do business in sub-Saharan Africa and it’s ranked among the least corrupt countries on the continent, according to Transparency International’s 2017 Corruption Perception Index.
But when Rwigara sought to learn more about her father’s death, her family says she found a very different picture. This was the “catalyst” for Diane’s political awakening, her siblings say.
She questioned what she saw as suspicious deaths and disappearances of prominent businessmen, lawyers, journalists and a former intelligence official, among others, Anne says. Groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International previously have highlighted those cases.
Rwanda’s National Police and the Office of the President have not responded to CNN’s request for comment on those cases.
In the lead-up to her presidential bid, Rwigara traveled outside Kigali, where most Rwandans live below the poverty line. She garnered support from many young people in rural areas and worked with volunteers like Eric to gather enough signatures to run for president.
Her press conferences and meetings were well attended by young people and journalists alike. That support was a surprising concern to some ruling party leaders, say her family and a local journalist who attended the meetings.
“There was a lot of fear surrounding what she was exposing about the country,” Anne says. Young people who attended her meetings would “see themselves in her,” she adds.
“Diane would talk about things they’d (the ruling party) been trying to hide away from public eye: famine, persecution, etc. She could sense their pain and they wanted to support her. They were really behind her… a lot of people thought: ‘enough was enough’ at this point, what do we have to lose?’”
Diane Rwigara knew her political aspirations would amount to “suicide,” Anne says, referring to a political climate marred by violence and jail terms. But she was willing to risk it. When Diane told her family she was planning to run for president, they were against it. They were concerned for her safety and her future.
Diane, they say, responded: “Is this a life? Do you even think you are living?”
Her brother Arioste Rwigara says that “in Rwanda, speaking of any injustice like that is a crime – it’s a sin,” adding that Rwandans have accepted a status quo of censorship because they are afraid to voice their opinions.
Arioste, like many of Kagame’s critics, believes the president uses the context of the genocide to quash any dissent, using Rwanda’s “Law relating to the punishment of the Crime of Genocide Ideology” – which is designed to prohibit hate speech – as a muzzle for any oppositional voices.
“I think the genocide is used as a pretext, as a justification for everything they do,” he says.
The Office of the President has not responded to CNN’s request for comment.
It came as no surprise to her family when shortly after Rwigara announced her candidacy, nude photos, allegedly of her, were spread across the internet. Rwigara and her family say the images were part of a smear campaign.
“They are fake nudes, altered in Photoshop, and it is one of many tactics that has been used to silence me,” Diane Rwigara told CNN in an August 2017 interview. A spokesman for Kagame’s party at the time denied to CNN having anything to do with the photos.
After Rwigara was disqualified, Rwanda’s Revenue Authority slapped her family’s business with a tax bill of 5.7 billion Rwandan francs (approximately $6.5 million) according to Anne, the company’s representative.
“He really likes to send a message. He likes to remind people, warning them, don’t even think about it,” Anne says of Kagame.
The Office of the President and the National Public Prosecution Authority have not responded to CNN’s request for comment.
Anne was initially arrested along with Diane and their mother Adeline on tax evasion charges and charged with incitement against the government. The tax evasion charges were eventually dropped, but only Anne was released and freed of all charges. Adeline now faces charges of discrimination and sectarian practices and inciting insurrection, based on WhatsApp messages exchanged between her and her sister, who lives outside Rwanda. The prosecution has called those private chats – in which Adeline and her sisters criticized the government – “dangerous meetings.” Diane has been charged with forgery and inciting insurrection.
While Rwigara and her mother await trial, the government has seized the family’s business, selling off their assets for more than 1.7 billion Rwandan francs (approximately $1.9 million) in auctions in March and June 2018, according to Anne Rwigara, the company’s representative.
With their cash flow now squeezed, a trial that has been pushed back three times and concerns over legal fees, the siblings are more worried than ever. They believe that the likelihood of the Rwigaras’ release – and a chance for a woman from the opposition to run for president of Rwanda – are slim.
Joan Nyanyuki, Amnesty International’s Regional Director for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes says that “criticizing the government is not a crime,” and has called on the Rwandan judiciary to “ensure that this trial does not become just another means to persecute government critics.”
For now, Diane and her mother, Adeline, are in separate cells at the newly constructed Mageragere Prison, a 30-minute drive from central Kigali. There, they spend most of their days alone, with short, highly supervised visits allowed once a week, according to the Rwigara family and other supporters who have visited them.
Attempts by CNN to speak with Diane Rwigara have been unsuccessful.
Most of Rwigara’s supporters have stopped visiting the pair in prison, fearful of retribution. One supporter says he stopped visiting her after his phone and laptop were confiscated by authorities who, he says, beat him and told him: “I will kill you if you continue to do this.”
In June he fled Rwanda, fearful to return to imprisonment, or lethal violence, he says. Some of Rwigara’s supporters have gone missing and he worries they could have been killed.
It is not clear how the trial, postponed until September 24, will unfold.
Although Rwigara was seeking to run as an independent candidate and was not connected with a political party, her story is similar to other opposition politicians.
Seven years before Rwigara attempted to stand against Kagame, lawyer and leader of the opposition FDU-Inkingi party Victoire Ingabire returned from the Netherlands, where she had been living in exile, to contest the 2010 election.
Ingabire, a Hutu, was arrested shortly afterward on charges that included collaborating with a terrorist organization and “genocide ideology.” She was initially handed an eight-year prison sentence that was later extended to 15 years. Kagame went on to win that election with 93% of the vote. Ingabire, now 49, is still in prison.
A former FDU-Inkingi treasurer who lives in exile and asked to remain anonymous because of safety fears says “anyone who will come out and try to say something different will end up in a prison or dead.”
“This is the reality of Rwanda,” the former treasurer says.
But many female lawmakers from Kagame’s ruling coalition, including Senate Vice President Jeanne d’Arc Gakuba, do not agree.
Gakuba believes the Rwandan political model is inclusive to all women, saying that it “absolutely” accommodates for female candidates from all backgrounds, including those with dissenting voices. She points to her own beginnings as a city councilor when she says she was supported in her bid to enter politics.
Margaret Nyagahura, a senator in the Rwandan parliament who was personally appointed by Kagame, agrees.
“It definitely has nothing to do with her being a woman or vying for the position of President,” Nyagahora says of Rwigara’s case.
Gakuba and Nyagahura, like many others, do not even want to speak about Rwigara or her case. Some female lawmakers scoff at the suggestion that the Kagame challenger was a legitimate candidate to begin with, using “that woman,” or “the young girl,” dismissively.
Kagame himself has made his thoughts on Rwigara known.
Shortly after he was re-elected, he spoke to an incoming group of ministers, many of them female. He referenced Rwigara.
“Even if you have been or want to become president of the country, you are not immune from prosecution. Those who are listening better be hearing me,” he said.
In June, Anne and other members of the Rwigara family appealed to Kagame for Diane and her mother Adeline’s release. They say both are in imminent danger in jail. But they believe their plea won’t be heard.
Many of Rwigara’s supporters fear the same. Eric remains on the run, swapping political activism for protecting his personal safety.
“If you want to go to prison, you can speak the truth,” he says.
Others have fled the country, convinced that returning would eventually lead to a death sentence.
“She wanted everyone to feel free,” one supporter, now in exile, said.
“When she went to prison, we lost something.”