CNN – Diane Rwigara, the 37-year-old human rights activist who had once hoped to run for the Rwandan presidency, has been acquitted of charges of fraud and inciting insurrection.
The verdict was delivered in Kigali’s High Court on Thursday.
Rwigara’s mother, Adeline, who was also in court facing charges of inciting insurrection and sectarian practices, was also acquitted of all charges.
“We find that the prosecution charges do not have a basis and find Diane Rwigara and Adeline Rwigara not guilty on all charges,” the three-judge verdict read, according to local news website The East African.
The Rwigaras were greeted by excited family members and supporters who rushed to embrace with songs and cheers inside the courtroom.
In the lead up to the verdict, Rwigara told CNN that she hoped she would be acquitted of the “fabricated charges” but that she was prepared for any outcome.
“All I know is that I am innocent,” she said Tuesday.
International pressure to “Free the Rwigaras” had been building ahead of Thursday’s hearing, including calls to drop the charges from a group of US congress members.
In a statement posted to the Rwanda Ministry of Justice website Thursday, the Minister of Justice and Attorney General said: “The Government respects the court’s verdict on the case of Diane Rwigara and Adeline Rwigara and will carefully study its implications. We condemn all attempts by external actors to inappropriately influence judicial processes in Rwanda. We will continue to vigorously enforce our laws on electoral integrity, public safety, and respect for the judiciary.”
Diane Rwigara said Tuesday that she was “thankful for the support I have received from both within and outside Rwanda,” adding that she was “encouraged to see that the injustice happening in my country does not go unnoticed.”
Following the verdict, Joan Nyanyuki, Amnesty International’s regional director, said in a statement that the Rwigaras “should never have faced charges for expressing their views,” and she called on Rwandan authorities “to build on this judgment and work toward developing greater tolerance and acceptance of alternative and critical views.”
“The judgment must be a first step in reversing the ongoing trend of repression in Rwanda,” Nyanyuki said.
‘Beyond a single election’
Rwigara was the sole female challenger in last year’s presidential election, which the incumbent, Paul Kagame, won with almost 99% of the vote.
She launched her election bid three months ahead of the August 2017 vote. Just days after she announced her plan to run for office, nude photos – allegedly of her – were posted online. Rwigara says the images were digitally altered and used by the government to discredit her. A spokesman for Kagame’s party at the time denied to CNN having anything to do with the photos.
Rwigara was eventually disqualified by electoral authorities who said she falsified signatures that she needed for her bid to qualify and accused her of submitting the names of dead people. On Thursday, the court said that while the documents presented to electoral authorities showed indications of forged signatures, the prosecution hadn’t proved that Rwigara had personally intended to forge them, according to the East African.
Shortly after her disqualification, Rwigara launched an activist group called the People Salvation Movement to “encourage Rwandans to hold their government accountable,” but was soon arrested on charges of inciting insurrection against the government and fraud.
Rwigara was facing a 22-year sentence if found guilty.
Her mother, Adeline, was also arrested on charges of sectarian practices and inciting insurrection, based on WhatsApp messages between herself and her sister, who lives outside Rwanda and had been charged in absentia, along with three others.
Rwanda’s “genocide ideology” and “sectarianism” laws were introduced to restrict hate speech following the 1994 genocide, however critics say they have also been used to gag dissenting voices, especially those from the opposition.
President Kagame’s office has not responded to CNN’s repeated requests for comment.
The court ruled Thursday that those messages were private conversations between individuals, according to news website Rwanda Today. The East African reported that all the other people on trial were also acquitted.
The Rwigaras spent a year in a Kigali prison before they were released on bail in October.
Their case had alarmed human rights activists, who argued that all the charges were politically motivated and highlighted a lack of political and social freedom under Kagame, who has been president since 2000 and long an influential figure in Rwanda’s modern history.
A former military strongman praised for turning Rwanda around after the social and economic destruction from the 1994 genocide, Kagame enjoys huge popularity in the country, which has seen strong economic growth in recent years and improved standards of living.
But his critics argue the successes of Kagame’s tenure have come at a high cost to civil society.
At a US congressional human rights committee briefing Tuesday, Adotei Akwei, deputy director for advocacy and government relations at Amnesty International USA, said that the “way governments engage with critics and voices of dissent, how they interact with civil society and treat human rights defenders are critical indicators that go beyond a single election,” and called the Rwigara case a “chilling expose on the culture of fear and repression that exist in Rwanda.”
Akwei also said that the “vague wording” of laws to prohibit hate speech have been “misused to stifle legitimate freedom of expression and criminalize criticism of the government.”
Kate Barth, the legal director of Freedom Now, an organization that represents political prisoners before international human rights courts, said at the congressional briefing that it is “time for Rwanda to allow peaceful dissent.”
“If President Kagame really does want to show the world a nation of remarkable recovery, or peace and prosperity and, perhaps most importantly, of respect for its citizens’ human rights, a terrific place to start would be to release all of the political prisoners and commit the country to ensuring that anyone may speak freely without fear that the inside of a prison cell awaits him or her.”
Phil Clark, a political scientist at SOAS University of London, who has studied Rwanda for nearly 20 years, told CNN Thursday that the acquittal “highlights the independence” of the Rwandan judiciary, which has become “increasingly effective and courageous” since 2003.
“Rwanda’s critics have consistently claimed that the country’s courts simply take orders from President Kagame and other powerful political actors,” he added, citing a string of court decisions that have challenged this assumption over the past few years.
“Already some international activists are trying to take credit for the Rwigara acquittal, claiming that it stems solely from foreign pressure. This view displays a white savior complex – believing positive on-the-ground developments can only come from foreigners. What this perspective misses is the skill of Rwandan lawyers and the independence and courage of Rwandan judges operating in a febrile political environment,” he added.