Kagame's Rwanda Attacking Journalists and Political Opponents

Despite the fact that the government of Paul Kagame in Rwanda has denied assertions by international journalists' rights groups that the government may have been involved in the shooting death of a journalist, Human Rights Watch thinks differently (HRW). Insecurity and political repression are increasing in advance of Rwanda's August 2010 presidential elections, HRW warned.

Foreign Affairs Minister Louise Mushikiwabo said on Saturday that the government was not involved in independent journalist Jean-Leonard Rugambage's death on Thursday. She called the allegations "dishonest."

The killing of Rugambage was not the first incident of violence against journalists. In February 2007, a group of assailants attacked the independent newspaper Umuvugizi's editor, Jean-Bosco Gasasira, in a near fatal incident outside his house, after he spoke out at a presidential news conference about the harassment of journalists. No one has been brought to justice for the attack.

HRW reports that besides the murder of Rugambage, the police have detained the leader of an opposition party, and other opposition party members have been arrested.

"The security situation is rapidly deteriorating," said Rona Peligal, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "With only 45 days left before the election, the government is lashing out to silence its opponents and critics."

The Rwandan government should investigate all incidents of violence and ensure that opposition activists and journalists are able to carry out their legitimate activities in safety, HRW said.

Jean-Léonard Rugambage, a journalist for the newspaper Umuvugizi, was shot dead shortly after 10 p.m. on June 24 outside his home in Nyamirambo, in the capital, Kigali. His colleagues and other sources in Rwanda told HRW that the assailant appeared to be waiting for the journalist as he returned home.

As Rugambage drove up to his gate, a man approached his car and fired several shots at close range, hitting him in the head and chest. Rugambage died on the spot. The assailant then drove off. Police arrived on the scene and took Rugambage's body to the police hospital in Kacyiru for autopsy. The police stated on June 25 that they were investigating his death, HRW says.

Whether this will be a vigorous investigation is doubtful.

Umuvugizi, an independent newspaper that has often been critical of the government, had published an article online on the morning Rugambage was killed, alleging that the Rwandan government was behind the attempted murder of a former Rwandan general, Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa, in South Africa on June 19, and implicating senior officials. General Kayumba, once a close ally of President Paul Kagame and a former chief-of-staff of the Rwandan army, has become an increasingly outspoken critic of the government since fleeing to South Africa in February 2010. Umuvugizi's editor said that Rugambage had been investigating the murder attempt on Kayumba and had reported being under increased surveillance in the days leading up to his death.

In the early hours of June 24, police entered the house of Bernard Ntaganda, leader of the opposition party PS-Imberakuri, and took him away for questioning. He has spent two days in police custody and is believed to be detained at Kicukiro police station. Members of the PS-Imberakuri reported that the police raided Ntaganda's house and the party's office and took away documents and other belongings. By June 25, the party's flag and sign had been taken down from their office.

Later on the morning of June 24, several members of PS-Imberakuri were rounded up by the police and taken into custody after they gathered outside the US embassy; they had gone there to ask for help following Ntaganda's arrest. Some were released, but several, including the party's secretary-general, Théobald Mutarambirwa, remained in detention in various locations in Kigali on June 25.

In January 2009 the Rwandan government all but telegraphed pending attacks on independent journalists when the information minister publicly declared that "the days of the destructive press are numbered," referring to Umuvugizi and a second independent newspaper, Umuseso.

These new allegations come on the heels of the release of Minneapolis attorney Peter Erlinder, a relentless critic of the Kagame government and an internationally known expert on the Rwandan genocide, after being held on charges of "genocide denial." The Minneapolis Star Tribune Reports, "In a shrill statement e-mailed to the Star Tribune this week, Rwandan Minister of Foreign Affairs Louise Mushikiwabo said Erlinder is 'a conspiracy theorist who seeks to willfully promote his extremist views on Rwandan soil.' Jailing him, she said, is an 'act of justice.'''

The Star Tribune, in a bold editorial, questions whether Rwanda is the democracy it claims to be.

The 800,000 people who died in Rwanda's bloody 1994 massacres unquestionably deserve justice. Unfortunately, the Rwanda government's decision to jail Minnesota attorney Peter Erlinder raises serious questions about the fitness of the African nation's judicial system to determine who's guilty of genocide and mete out punishment accordingly.

Journalists use supposedly US friendly Rwanda as their safety net, and I have written in the past that this compromises our ability to critically examine the oppressive nature of the Kagame government.

We might reflect on the fact that General Laurent Nukunda has been held in Rwanda since January 2009 without the ability to visit family or get a proper hearing.

We might also recall the work of the late human rights advocate Alison Des Forges who, before her death in a plane crash, was summarily banned from Rwanda by the regime of President Paul Kagame. At the time, Kagama was under indictment by French Judge Jean-Louis Bruguiere on terrorism charges.

Why is Laurent Nkunda, once Kagame's ally, being held without addressing his civil liberties and rights?

Perhaps it is because civil liberties are a non-sequitur in Rwanda, while Paul Kagame tries desperately to hold onto his regime at the expense of the people who are still struggling to put the genocide behind them. The fact that the United States continues to place its influence behind this regime should be open to vigorous debate and criticism.

The American free press and mainstream media are culpable for ignoring this grievous attack on the press. The situation in Rwanda should be a prominent part of the current news cycle.