Rwandan opposition leader Victoire Ingabire must get a prompt and fair appeal after being convicted in a trial that fell short of international standards, says Amnesty International.
Ms Ingabire, President of the United Democratic Forces (FDU-Inkingi), was sentenced to eight years in prison on Tuesday. Ms Ingabire was arrested in April 2010, shortly after her return to Rwanda following 16 years in exile. (READ: Rwanda opposition leader jailed for 'denying genocide')
She had hoped to register FDU-Inkingi to stand in the August 2010 presidential elections. “The trial was marred by the court’s failure to ensure that evidence was properly tested, combined with the prosecution’s disregard for due process in some instances,” said Sarah Jackson, Amnesty International’s Acting Deputy Africa Director.
On Tuesday, judge Alice Rulisa told the court: “She has been sentenced to eight years for all the crimes that she was found guilty of.’’ The judge added that she was innocent of another charge of “calling for another genocide”.
Judge Rulisa said the leader was found guilty of the “crime of conspiracy in harming authorities through terrorism and war” as well as denial of Rwanda’s 1994 genocide.
The genocide denial charges against Ingabire were triggered by remarks she made in January 2010 at the memorial to the estimated 800,000 people, the majority of them Tutsis, who were killed in the slaughter.
Ms Ingabire, herself a Hutu and the leader of the Unified Democratic Forces (FDU), a political grouping that has not been allowed to register as a party, said it was time Hutu war victims were also commemorated.
She refused to attend the hearing on Tuesday, and chose to remain in jail where she has been held since October 2010. Her British lawyer Iain Edwards said they would appeal the conviction, which he called a “disappointment”.
“We thought she would be acquitted of all charges, but we will appeal, first to the Supreme Court and then, if that fails, we will go to the African Court on Human and People’s Rights,” he said, referring to a court based in the Tanzanian city of Arusha.
The FDU condemned the conviction, claiming the court “process was marred by intimidation, interferences and unfairness”.
Rights group Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a statement on Tuesday that the ruling is “the culmination of a flawed trial that included politically motivated charges,” adding that it was concerned Ingabire did not receive a fair trial.
“Several factors lead us to conclude that Ingabire did not receive a fair trial.
“These include the politically motivated charges, doubts about the reliability of some of the evidence, senior government officials’ public statements before the trial about Ingabire’s guilt, and broader concerns about the lack of independence of the Rwandan judiciary in politicised cases,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch.
Ingabire returned to the country from exile in The Netherlands in January 2010, and shortly after called for the trial of those responsible for the deaths of Hutus in the genocide.
During the trial, prosecutors showed what they said was evidence of Ingabire’s “terrorist” activities, including proof of financial transfers to the FDLR, a Hutu rebel movement based in neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo.
Ingabire, who denied all the charges, was accused of “giving financial support to a terrorist group, planning to cause state insecurity and divisionism”.
Four other co-accused, who admitted to being FDLR members and said they received money from Ingabire to set up an army to attack Rwanda were also convicted, receiving sentences of between two and four years.
Ms Ingabire’s FDU have accused Kigali of fabricating evidence against its leader to prevent her from participating in the political life of the small central African country.
She boycotted her trial mid-way through proceedings after the court cut short a witness who accused the Rwandan authorities of rigging evidence against her.
The witness, a former FDLR spokesman, said Rwandan intelligence services had offered money to rebels to make false claims over Ingabire’s ties with the group.
Among the claims by Amnesty International is that “the prosecution alleged that Ingabire worked with the co-accused men to try to form an armed opposition group, the Coalition of Defence Forces (CDF).
The co-accused said that she held meetings with them in the DRC and Republic of Congo. They also alleged that Ingabire transferred money to them by Western Union through third parties.
The co-accused: Major Vital Uwumuremyi, Lieutenant Colonel Tharcisse Nditurende, Lieutenant Colonel Noel Habyaremye, and Captain Jean Marie Vianney Karuta confessed to past involvement with the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), an armed opposition group in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
But, Amnesty says: “The court did not properly test oral evidence given by the co-accused and it prevented the defence from properly cross-examining them.
During limited questions that the court permitted the defence, it materialized that Nditurende and Habyaremye were unlawfully detained by the Rwandan military before incriminating Ingabire.
They were interviewed at Camp Kami by intelligence agents without the presence of a lawyer. The court made no effort to obtain notes of these interviews which may have assisted Ingabire’s defence.