Two Rwandan journalists imprisoned for insulting President Paul Kagame and denying genocide will appear before the country’s Supreme Court on Monday to argue for their freedom.
The fate of Agnès Uwimana and Saïdati Mukakibibi, who are supported by an international team of lawyers and British human rights groups, has become a test case for free speech in the Central African state.
The ban on denial of the country’s 1994 genocide, which claimed as many as 800 000 lives, is being exploited as a legal weapon to silence political opponents, it is alleged. Rwanda insists the law is no different to those in Europe outlawing denial of the Holocaust.
The two women will be represented at the Supreme Court in the capital, Kigali, by John Jones, a London barrister who specialises in war crimes trials. He has previously appeared at the international criminal tribunal for Rwanda in Arusha, in neighbouring Tanzania.
Rwanda, formerly a German and Belgian colony, has been a member of the Commonwealth since 2009. Concerns highlighted by human rights groups before its accession included harassement of journalists and the extent of political freedoms.
Under Rwanda’s Constitution, “revisionism, negationism and trivialisation of genocide are punishable by the law”. Critics say the legislation is too vague and is used against those who suggest that both ethnic Hutus and Tutsis suffered equally in the genocide, contradicting the state’s official version of events.
In 2010, an American law professor, Peter Erlinder, who had appeared at the Arusha tribunal, was imprisoned in Rwanda because his comments allegedly minimised the country’s genocide.
The journalists’ case may influence relations between Rwanda and the UK. British courts have recently refused to deport those wanted by Kigali. The country’s legal processes are under international scrutiny.
Uwimana, who was sentenced to 17 years, and Mukakibibi, who received seven years, are both widows with children. They remain in jail pending the appeal.
Their articles, in papers with small circulations, made allegations of corruption among officials and criticised the president ahead of the 2010 elections. They were convicted last year of insulting Kagame, endangering national security, inciting divisionism and denying the genocide.
“The genocide denial charge stems from a passage where the journalist mentioned that — Rwandans killed each other,” explained Nani Jansen, legal officer of the London-based organisation Media Legal Defence Initiative. “This contradicts the official version of events, which is that there was a one-sided genocide.”
“Even more absurdly, the court did not take into account that in the same article, the journalist accused Kagame of not doing enough to punish genocidaires — clearly indicating that she does not deny the genocide.” Jansen has flown out to Kigali to help represent the two writers.
Among the British civil rights groups that have made submissions to the court supporting the appeal is Article 19, the anti-censorship organisation. It said the conviction “violates international human rights standards on freedom of expression”.
John Jones, who has been temporarily admitted to the bar in Kigali for the case, said: “It is being said that the laws on genocide denial are being abused quite a lot — to silence political opposition. The United Nations and civil rights bodies have criticised [the law]. In court we will be saying that the laws have to be interpreted narrowly and proper importance has to be given to freedom of expression, which is a central attribute of a healthy democracy.”
“Rwandans are coming out of this extraordinary period in their history. Some people have compared it to being like the Jews being in charge of Germany after the war. They don’t want [outsiders] to dictate how they should run their country. That can be seen as offensive. These ladies should be acquitted, and anyway the sentences are way too harsh,” he added.
Jones said 17 years was “ludicrous — armed robbers and rapists normally receive such sentences”.
“Sweden has recently agreed to extradite people to Kigali, so the world is beginning to say that you can trust Rwanda. So it is all the more important for justice to be done properly,” Jones said.
Kagame has been quoted in an interview with a Ugandan newspaper as saying that he accepts that the 17-year sentence is harsh and “reflects badly on the country”.
Rwanda’s high commission in London said: “The hearing will be open and transparent. Both Uwimana and Mukakibibi are represented by a competent team of local and international lawyers and attorneys. We are confident they will receive a free and fair trial.”
“The law against genocide denial and incitement of violence and hatred — was adopted in the face of growing denial and trivialisation of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi. The law penalises denial of the genocide and incitement of violence and hate at a time when Rwanda is rebuilding national unity, reconciliation and tolerance in order to help Rwandan society heal after the tragic genocide … The law was developed in accordance with international best practices and is no different from similar laws that have been adopted by some European countries in response to Holocaust and genocide denial. Application and interpretation of the law has always been a matter for the Rwandan competent courts of law.” —