When Rwandan opposition leader Victoire Ingabire learned that she was going to be released from jail, she couldn’t believe the news.
The 49-year-old leader of the opposition FDU-Inkingi party had served eight years of her 15-year sentence but there had been no sign of an early release.
Yet on September 15, Ingabire, along with more than 2,100 other Rwandan prisoners, was granted a pardon by Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame.
Despite Kagame’s recent assurances that he is ready to work with the opposition, Ingabire told CNN she is is waiting for the time when members of the opposition can “be free and speak out without fear.”
From exile to a jail cell
In 2010 Ingabire returned to Rwanda from the Netherlands, where she was living in exile, to contest the presidential election.
But shortly after, she was arrested following comments she made in relation to the country’s 1994 genocide, when, over the course of 100 days, an estimated 800,000 people – primarily from the Tutsi group – were murdered. Moderate Hutus were also killed in the three-month bloodshed. Some 2 million people fled the country.
At a Gisozi Genocide Memorial, which commemorates the Tutsi victims of the genocide, Ingabire questioned why there was no mention of the Hutu victims of the genocide and called for the prosecution of war crimes and crimes committed against those Hutus, which ultimately led to her arrest on charges that included collaborating with a terrorist organization, “divisionism,” “minimizing the genocide” and “genocide ideology.”
Ingabire was initially handed an eight-year prison sentence that was later extended to 15 years after the prosecution appealed.
Kagame went on to win the 2010 election with 93% of the vote.
Ingabire has long said her sentence was a result of her work as a prominent government critic and that the charges effectively criminalized her freedom of expression. International organizations such as Amnesty International and a 2017 African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights ruling have supported those views.
“I was jailed because I wanted to participate in the presidential election,” Ingabire says.
Today, Ingabire says that although she might have chosen a different location to speak about the deaths of moderate Hutus in the genocide, she will not back down from her comments.
“What I said in 2010 was the reality,” she says, adding that “reconciliation is a long process and includes justice and justice for all.”
Part of that reconciliation, she says, is for the Rwandan government to allow for an open civil and political landscape, one where people can “move freely and express their opinions.”
Ingabire, like some Kagame critics, believes that the government often uses the context of genocide to stifle free speech, referring to the “Law relating to the punishment of the Crime of Genocide Ideology,” which is designed to prohibit hate speech.
“The argument of the government is that they are afraid that we can again have a genocide or war in Rwanda,” she says. “It’s just a reason to not open the political space in Rwanda. They use it to stop the opposition.”
Ingabire says the government “knows that the genocide cannot happen again in Rwanda,” citing cooperation between Tutsi and Hutus in both government and oppositional politics.
Freedoms for some women
Kagame has been in power since 2000, but he has long been an instrumental leader in the country’s modern history. In 1994, he led the armed wing of the Rwandan Patriotic Front or RPF (what is now the ruling party) into Kigali, helping to bring an end to the genocide.
The 60-year-old leader has been widely credited with the nation’s remarkable economic turnaround, with successful fiscal and social development schemes widely touted by the international community as an example for the region.
Ingabire doesn’t discount some of those advances. But she can’t applaud them, she says, if civil society is not free.
“If you don’t lead your people freely, that is a big problem,” Ingabire says.
She then assesses Kagame’s commitment to women and gender parity.
In 2013, Kagame signed in 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.
But Ingabire says that women in politics only succeed if they play by Kagame’s rules.
“We have so many women in parliament and in the government and the local authority. But the problem is really if you are in opposition, you have other opinions, they put you in jail,” Ingabire says.
She highlights her own story, and compares it to that of Diane Rwigara, the independent presidential hopeful who has been imprisoned for more than a year.
Rwigara, 37, was the sole female challenger in the August 2017 presidential election that Kagame won with almost 99% of the vote. She was disqualified by electoral authorities who accused her of fraudulently submitting the number of signatures to qualify as a candidate – charges she denies.
After Rwigara was disqualified, she 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.
“If she did not ask to participate in the presidential election, she would not be in prison. It is the same case as me,” Ingabire says.
Hopeful, but cautious
Ingabire shared the same jail cell with Rwigara at the end of her imprisonment, and was present at the start of her trial – which was postponed – last week. When Rwigara’s trial begins again on Tuesday, Ingabire will be present. But she believes the trial will not be free, nor fair.
“A free trial for political opposition in Rwanda is not yet possible,” Ingabire says.
Rwanda’s Office of the President, National Police and the RPF have not responded to CNN’s repeated requests for comment.
“Maybe Diane (Rwigara’s) case will be the first – or the case of one of my members of political party will be the first. But until today, there has been no fair trial for political opposition in Rwanda,” she says.
Still, Ingabire says she remains hopeful that change will come. She isn’t expecting it to happen soon, however – or without approval from Kagame.
“If I say ‘I hope,’ it doesn’t mean that I am naive that I think that everything will be easy or that Kagame will open it.”
“It is something we have to do with the Rwandan people – and explain to the people that we need change, that it’s in the interest of everybody.”