Rwanda’s high court on Thursday acquitted the country’s most prominent opposition figure, Diane Rwigara, of all charges related to her election challenge of President Paul Kagame, with judges saying the prosecution failed to provide evidence of insurrection and forgery.
Cheers broke out in the courtroom in the capital Kigali where Diane Rwigara and her mother Adeline were acquitted of charges that were widely seen as politically motivated. They hugged supporters, hands in the air in celebration.
“Court rules that Diane Rwigara is innocent,” judge Xavier Ndahayo, one of a panel of three, told the packed courtroom. The judges described the charges as “baseless”.
The country’s first female independent candidate for the Rwandan presidency, 37-year-old Rwigara was accused of forgery in relation to her unsuccessful attempt to run against the long-time president Kagame, and has been in jail for a year. She faced 22 years behind bars if convicted.
The Rwandan election commission had said that some of the 600 signatures she had submitted – a requirement for aspiring presidential candidates – were forged, and that some of the people on her list were dead. She was not allowed to run and Kagame won a third term with 99% of the vote.
Rwigara’s mother was accused of inciting insurrection through audio messages sent on WhatsApp, which were intercepted and used as evidence by the prosecution. But the court ruled that these were merely conversations between individuals and did not prove that she was promoting insurrection.
After announcing her intention to run for president, nude pictures of the younger Rwigara were leaked online.
Rwigara’s father, a prominent businessman who was once close to the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RFP), was killed in a road accident in 2015. The family accuses the government of foul play, saying he was targeted “because he did not want to continue to do business as usual”.
Amnesty said the Rwigaras’ acquittal should “usher in a new era for freedom of expression in Rwanda”, reversing the trend of repression there.
“Diane and Adeline Rwigara should never have faced charges for expressing their views,” said Joan Nyanyuki, Amnesty’s regional director. “While we welcome their discharge and acquittal, we are concerned that the right to freedom of expression remains under attack in Rwanda.”
The Rwandan ministry of justice said it respected the verdict and would “carefully study its implications”, though it added: “We condemn all attempts by external actors to inappropriately influence judicial processes in Rwanda.”
On Tuesday, a commission of the US house of representatives held a briefing on human rights and political prisoners in Rwanda, drawing attention to the Rwigaras.
Kagame is largely credited with the development and stability that Rwanda has experienced since the genocide in which 800,000 people were killed; he has also spearheaded gender equality, and 61% of parliamentarians are women. But he is also accused of extreme authoritarianism, including pursuing dissidents who have fled the country.
In September, 2,000 prisoners were released, including Victoire Ingabire, another prominent opposition leader. Human rights organisations welcomed this, saying it showed that “Rwanda may be turning a new leaf”, but said the arrests, executions, disappearances and torture would have to end to prove that the change was meaningful.
“Our justice works freely, everybody should know that,” Kagame said in response to questions about the trial last month.
Since Rwigara’s arrest last year, her brothers and sister have been interrogated, family assets have been forcibly auctioned to pay off a multi-million dollar tax claim, while a hotel the family owned was demolished for allegedly failing to abide by city guidelines.