The verdict in the trial of Rwandan opposition leader Victoire Ingabire, due on Friday, has been put off until September. She refutes charges of bankrolling terrorism and genocide denial.
Victoire Ingabire is accused of genocide denial, giving financial support to a terrorist group, threatening state security and inciting ethnic division, and the public prosecutor in Rwanda is calling for her to be sent to prison for life.
But a prosecution spokesman, Alain Mukualinda, said the verdict had been posptoned until September 7. He told the news agency AFP "the judges were still examining some points." The verdict was to have been announced on June 29.
Ingabire and her lawyers are calling for an acquittal. Eugene Ndahayo, an ally from her party, the Unified Democratic Forces (FDU-Inkingi) supports this. "These are trumped-up charges invented by the government. They wanted to find reasons to put her in prison," he says.
Ingabire herself also describes the charge sheet as politically motivated. In April, she and her lawyers announced they were boycotting the trial. She said in a statement she had lost confidence in the Rwandan legal system. Witnesses were being intimidated and the media was against her. The executive was meddling in the affairs of the judiciary; she could therefore no longer trust the court to deliver an impartial verdict.
Party not allowed to run in presidential elections
Carina Tertsakian from the rights group Human Rights Watch also doubts the court's independence. She says the government keeps national institutions, the judiciary included, under its thumb. "In the less political cases, some of the trials are conducted very well," she says. "But in the political cases, you really can detect government interference."
Ingabire is an unflinching critic of Rwandan President Paul Kagame. After 16 years in exile in the Netherlands, she returned home at the beginning of 2010 in order to run against Kagame in the presidential elections. Her party was never allowed to compete in the poll and she was arrested.
Victoire Ingabire with her British defense counsel Iain Edwards in September 2011
But Ingabire's FDU-Inkingi party wasn't the only one to feel the heavy hand of government. None of the three main opposition parties was allowed to participate in the elections. President Kagame was reelected, polling 93 percent of the vote. As well as the FDU-Inkingi, the Democratic Green Party was kept out of the race. A month before the poll, the party's deputy leader was murdered. The party leader fled abroad.
International pressure has yet to yield results
The former leader of the third main opposition party, Bernard Ntaganda, has been in prison since July 2010. He was found guilty of "genocide ideology," a charge also levelled at Ingabire. On her return from exile, she had called for the commemoration of Hutu as well as Tutsi victims of the massacres. Those crimes should also be brought before the courts, she believes. The controversial anti-genocide law has been on Rwanda's statute book since 2008. Tertsakian says the law is couched in very vague terms. "In principle, every remark can be interpreted as inciting ethnic division , which suffices for a charge under the anti-genocide law."
More than half a million Tutsis and politically moderate Hutus were killed in the 1994 genocide
Bowing to international pressure, the law is now being reworked. Any amendments, though, have yet to be implemented.
In Ingabire's case, as opposed to those of other opposition figures, she is not just being accused of denying the genocide and criticizing the government. Mukualinda, the prosecutor's spokesman, says the prosecution has evidence that she gave financial backing to the Rwandan Hutu rebel group Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR).
"There are documents, confiscated from various banks, that prove that money was transferred," he said.
Ingabire told Germany's taz newspaper that she had indeed met the leader of the FDLR and that he had told her that Rwanda's problems could not be resolved without a fight. She denies, however, that she was involved in the planning of acts of terrorism.
Tertsakian shares Ingabire's lack of confidence in the Rwandan legal system. "I would be very surprised if she isn't found guilty," she says. Government officials and not just prosecutors were critical of her. "It seems as if she was pronounced guilty before the trial had even started," says Tertsakian.
Rwanda likes to promote itself as a dynamic, emerging economic power, whose work in coming to terms with the horrific genocide deserves almost role-model status. Yet the case of Victoire Ingabire shows that freedom of opinion in the country is as good as non-existent.
Author: Hilke Fischer / mc
Editor: Susan Houlton