Top Rwandan opposition figure not deterred by detention

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Diane Rwigara will not let more than a year in detention derail her campaign against President Paul Kagame, the rebel-turned-statesman lauded for transforming the small African nation’s economy but criticised for smothering dissent.

The 37-year-old accountant tried to run against Kagame in the 2017 election, where he won a third seven-year term. But she was barred by an electoral commission and detained on charges including forging documents associated with that bid.

“Before going to prison, I had founded the  Movement for People’s Salvation -Itabaza – and my plan is to continue with it,” she said in her first interview since being acquitted in December of inciting insurrection and forgery.

“I want it to be the channel through which Rwandan voices can be heard,” she told Reuters in Kigali.

“I want it to be the platform where we can hold this government accountable,” said Rwigara, freed on bail in October and acquitted along with her mother in court in December. Both denied the charges.

Rwigara, told by the electoral commission she did not have sufficient supporting signatures to run for president, repeatedly accused Kagame of stifling dissent, accusations the president and his government dismiss.

Rwigara is not alone in having a presidential bid derailed by legal wrangles. Victoire Ingabire, leader of the unregistered FDU-Inkingi party, tried to run in 2010 but was barred and arrested and jailed in 2012. She was freed by presidential pardon last year.

“We should not be jailed for having an opinion. I think change is possible but we cannot wait for pressure from abroad,” Rwigara said.

She criticised Kagame’s Rwandan Patriotic Front for its near total hold on power since it marched into Kigali in 1994, ending a genocide in which an estimated 800,000 ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus were butchered.

“The party in power and its chairman President Paul Kagame have to understand this country does not belong to one man or one family or a small clique of powerful people,” she said.

Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other rights groups criticise the government for squeezing out opponents. Rwanda has only one registered opposition party, which is tiny and has just two seats in the 80 member parliament.

Kagame dismisses criticism, saying his government guarantees free speech and fair elections.

He says the overwhelming majorities he secured at the ballot box reflect broad support for his efforts to rebuild a nation, hailed by Western governments in the past as a model for development.

Olivier Nduhungirehe, a minister of state for foreign affairs, told Reuters Rwigara’s comments were “populist” and said Rwandans chose the leader they wanted to run the nation of 12 million people.

“Only the people through elections can decide who runs the country, it’s not up to Diane Rwigara to decide,” he said.