Sunday, December 15, 2013

Rwanda's Ingabire: political prisoner or terrorist?

Victoire Ingabire speaks to her supporters 
in front of the Supreme Court in Kigali,
Rwanda, on December 13, 2013
A political prisoner to supporters but a convicted terrorist to Rwandan justice, Victoire Ingabire, who was jailed for 15 years Friday on appeal, divides opinion in the small central African nation.
Arrested in October 2010, months after returning from 16 years in exile in the Netherlands, Ingabire has been a rare outspoken critic and challenger to the iron-fisted rule of President Paul Kagame.
The 45-year-old mother of three children heads the Unified Democratic Forces (UDF), an opposition group not recognised as a political party in Rwanda.
Her return to the country was deeply controversial.
After laying flowers at the genocide memorial in Kigali, commemorating the 1994 slaughter of some 800,000 people, mainly minority Tutsis, Ingabire called for perpetrators of crimes against the Hutu majority also to be pursued, sparking a furious reaction.
"She wanted to play the ethnic card," said a Supreme Court lawyer.
Last April, Ingabire, who maintains her innocence and boycotted much of her trial by remaining in her cell, was sentenced to eight years in jail for terrorism and genocide denial.
Though she was found not guilty of spreading genocide ideology and "setting up an armed group", prosecution lawyers appealed and called for her jail time to be extended to 25 years.
At the demand of prosecutors, the court in Kigali on Friday increased Ingabire's jail term to 15 years, but rejected some of the charges against her.
The prosecution accused her of collaborating with rebels who fled to eastern Democratic Republic of Congo after carrying out the genocide, the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda(FDLR).
But others are sceptical.
"I don't think she has links with the FDLR," said Anneke Verbraeken, a Dutch journalist who has followed her career, but she added that Ingabire had been "naive and had not always chosen her followers wisely".
Ingabire's husband, Lin Muyizere, insists that if she had any discussions with the rebels, it was to make clear how she opposed integration with them.
"The armed struggle was not her field," he said.
Politically ambitious
Born in 1968, Ingabire was raised by her grandparents in the picturesque western Rwandan town of Gisenyi on the shores of Lake Kivu, and later studied in the capital Kigali before working in the finance ministry.
A Hutu, Ingabire left Rwanda for the Netherlands for economic training in March 1994, just two weeks before the shooting down of the airplane of Hutu President Juvenal Habyarimana, which triggered the genocide.
Later joined by her husband and granted asylum in the Netherlands in 1995, she worked as an accountant for an American company.
But Rwanda remained close to her heart and she set up a charity to support Rwandans who had fled after the genocide into grim camps in eastern Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo.
"Victoire never wanted to move to the Netherlands," said her husband, adding that she wanted "Rwandans to reconcile."
In 1997, she joined and later chaired an opposition political group set up by refugees in the neighbouring DR Congo, the Republican Rally for Democracy in Rwanda (RDR), before in 2003 leading the coalition Union of Rwandan Democratic Forces (UFDR).
"Ingabire was chosen because her hands were not dirty," unlike other opposition members accused of involvement in the genocide, said Verbraeken.
"She was also young, and men in the party thought they could handle her."
But they quickly became disillusioned, a source close to the movement in exile said.
"Her last meetings in Brussels in late 2009 were quite spectacular... she had acquired charisma... and a taste for power," the source said.
In 2006, Ingabire backed the creation of yet another opposition movement, the United Democratic Forces, which she still heads.
"It took me some time before taking her seriously," admits analyst Kris Berwouts, who knew her during her exile. "I found it difficult to imagine that someone who left Rwanda before the genocide and that had never returned could threaten the regime."


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