KIGALI (Reuters) - The sentencing of a Rwandan opposition politician to four years in jail for inciting ethnic division was a sign the country was using the judicial system to stifle criticism, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Saturday.
On Friday, Rwanda’s High Court found Bernard Ntaganda guilty of endangering national security, divisionism, inciting ethnic divisions and attempting to organise illegal demonstrations, sentencing him to two years each for the first two charges.
He was fined 100,000 francs for the third charge.
Rwanda’s prosecutors, who had initially demanded Ntaganda be imprisoned for 10 years, said the verdict was fair.
Ntaganda, leader of the opposition Social Party Imberakuri, was arrested six weeks before last August’s presidential election and charged under the genocide ideology law, which officials say is necessary to prevent future violence.
The law is a highly sensitive issue in Rwanda which has been completely rebuilt since the 1994 genocide in which 800,000 ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus died.
President Paul Kagame has been praised for restoring stability after the genocide, implementing reforms and fostering robust economic growth in recent years, but critics say his leadership is authoritarian and intolerant of dissent.
Analysts say critics of the government, including journalists, civil society groups, clergy and teachers, are frequently targeted by the law.
U.S.-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) says the law is broad, ill-defined and frequently used to serve political or personal interest, and to eliminate certain views deemed inappropriate.
The prosecutions showed Rwanda’s government would not stand for any criticism or opposition, despite its public commitment to free speech and political pluralism, HRW said in a statement.
“These charges are wholly inappropriate, and the justice system is being used as a tool to stifle dissent and intimidate the public,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director of HRW.
HRW asked Rwanda to revise the law to include a more precise definition of the crime, and prevent misuse of this charge. It also called for a review of the media law, which it said imposes restrictions on journalists.
Kigali says 1994’s genocide directly resulted from unchecked genocide ideology and that despite the country’s efforts, the insidious idea remained prevalent.
“There is no place for hate speech and divisionism in Rwanda. Our laws are there to protect Rwandans from those who want to reverse the economic and social progress as well as the reconciliation that has been made in the last 17 years,” Martin Ngoga, Rwanda’s Prosecutor General said.
The verdict comes just one week after two journalists, Agnès Nkusi Uwimana and Saidaiti Mukakibibi, were sentenced to 17 and 7 years respectively in connection with articles published in the independent newspaper, Umurabyo.