Nairobi — Presidential elections in Rwanda on August 4, 2017, took place in a context of very limited free speech or open political space, Human Rights Watch said today, as President Paul Kagame is sworn in for a seven-year term. Human Rights Watch released a chronology of violations of the right to freedom of expression, association, and assembly in Rwanda between the country's December 2015 referendum – allowing the president to run for a third term – and the election, which Kagame won with a reported 98.79 percent of the vote.
"Kagame's landslide win came as no surprise in a context in which Rwandans who have dared raise their voices or challenge the status quo have been arrested, forcibly disappeared, or killed, independent media have been muzzled, and intimidation has silenced groups working on civil rights or free speech," said Ida Sawyer, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "Yet the Rwandan authorities took no chances with the presidential vote, as repression continued in recent months despite the weak prospects for any opposition candidate."
In the days following the vote, Human Rights Watch spoke with local activists and private citizens who spoke of intimidation and irregularities in both the lead-up to the election and during the voting. In Rutsiro district, in Western Province, donations to the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) were mandatory. "Nobody could escape this order," said one voter. "It was organized through the National Electoral Commission."
Another voter, also from Rutsiro, said that he was forced to vote in the presence of a National Electoral Commission official. "After verifying my name on the voting list, I was told to vote then and there in front of him," the voter said. "It was easy to see who I was voting for on the ballot, so it was impossible for me to vote for anyone besides Kagame."
A person monitoring the vote in Nyamagabe District, in the south, said he saw voting officials sign ballots for at least 200 people who did not show up to vote. All the votes went to the RPF.
On August 5, the US State Department released a statement citing "irregularities observed during voting." On August 6, the European Union released a statement supporting the peaceful elections but adding: "in view of future elections, the EU expects further efforts to increase the inclusiveness and transparency of the process, in particular as regards the registration of the candidates, the tabulation of results and other prerequisites for achieving a level playing field."
Three candidates contested the elections: Kagame (Rwandan Patriotic Front, RPF); Frank Habineza (Democratic Green Party of Rwanda, DGPR); and an independent candidate, Philippe Mpayimana. Both Habineza and Mpayimana said they experienced harassment, threats, and intimidation after announcing their candidacy. Neither posed a serious challenge to President Kagame. Mpayimana won 0.73 percent of the vote and Habineza won 0.48 percent.
A person who monitored the campaign in Musanze, Burera, and Rulindo districts, in the Northern Province, said that local security forces went door-to-door in various neighborhoods before the vote, telling people not to participate in Habineza's campaign rallies. "It was too much of a risk for most people to go to the rally and listen to what [Habineza] had to say," he said, "so only a few people dared to go."
Two other would-be independent candidates, Diana Rwigara and Gilbert Mwenedata, said that they had fulfilled eligibility requirements of 600 signatures supporting their candidacy, including 12 from each of the 30 districts. But the National Electoral Commission rejected their efforts to register, claiming that many of the signatures were invalid. Another potential candidate, Thomas Nahimana, a Catholic prelate turned politician, was denied access to Rwanda in January when he tried to enter from France, where he now lives.
On August 3, Rwigara told the BBC Kinyarwanda service, which is banned in Rwanda, that five of her supporters had been arrested for wearing t-shirts supporting her political campaign. The supporters were later released.
Kagame himself boasted that the election results were already known during a campaign rally in Ruhango district, in Southern Province, in mid-July. "I am very pleased because we are already aware of the results of the elections," he said. "Anyone who says that results are not known is lying. The results were already known since December 2015."
On December 18, 2015, Rwandans overwhelmingly approved amendments to the constitution to allow Kagame to run again - a third term had not been permitted under the previous constitution. According to the official results, 98.3 percent of the 98 percent of registered voters who participated in the referendum voted in favor of the amendments.
The referendum followed attacks on suspected political and military opponents in the years since the RPF came to power in 1994, including murders both inside and outside of Rwanda.
In the period between the referendum and the August 2017 presidential elections, Human Rights Watch documented an ongoing pattern of harassment, arrests, and detention of opposition party leaders and supporters, activists, and journalists. Several were forcibly disappeared or prosecuted after making comments critical of the current government or ruling party.
Human Rights Watch has documented that poor people, critics of government decisions regarding land disputes, and suspected petty criminals have been arbitrarily arrested, held in illegal detention centers, and in some cases executed, forcibly disappeared, tortured, or mistreated. These tactics ensure that citizens are afraid to speak out against the government.
The revised constitution, among other things, reduces presidential terms to five years, renewable only once, after a transitional seven-year term starting in 2017. It also reset the clock on presidential terms already served. It allowed Kagame to run for a third seven-year term in 2017 and will allow him to run for two five-year terms, in 2024 and 2029, opening the possibility of extending his rule until 2034.
The process was initiated by a series of petitions in which more than 3.78 million people claimed to support extending Kagame's stay in office. Parliament, after national consultations, unanimously approved the amendments. The opposition DGPR lost a case before the Supreme Court challenging the proposal, and was the only registered political party to oppose the constitutional amendments.
"Rwanda's donors and partners should take a stronger stance against the government's many measures to clamp down on free expression and quash dissent, and make clear that there will be consequences," Sawyer said. "While the country has made remarkable economic and development progress since the genocide that devastated the country in 1994, it should not come at the cost of the Rwandan people's most fundamental freedoms."
Chronology of Rwanda's Closing Space
The following charts several key political developments between January 2016 and August 2017, including many threats to and violations of the rights to freedom of expression, association, and assembly in Rwanda leading up to presidential elections on August 4, 2017. The list is not exhaustive. Human Rights Watch documented several other cases that are not included because the people concerned feared repercussions if their situation is publicized.
President Paul Kagame announces his intention to run again.
John Williams Ntwali, one of Rwanda's few investigative journalists, is arrested and accused of raping a minor. Judicial officials later changed the charge to indecent assault and eventually dropped the case for lack of evidence. Ntwali had been investigating several sensitive issues, including the death of Assinapol Rwigara, a businessman and father of would-be independent presidential candidate Diana Rwigara, whose candidacy was later rejected. Ntwali had been arrested several times before, and his website blocked by a government regulator, apparently because of his critical reporting.
Police confiscate the computers of East African newspaper journalists Ivan Mugisha and Moses Gahigi. They had been investigating cases of alleged tax evasion and corruption. The police briefly detained and questioned Mugisha.
February 8 - March 22
Local elections take place, at the level of the cell, district, and the city of Kigali - the capital. Several participants allege voter intimidation.
Ntwali is released.
The Rwandan government withdraws its declaration allowing individuals to file complaints with the African Court on Human and Peoples' Rights on the grounds that the remedy was being exploited by convicted genocide fugitives. The court had been due to hear a complaint against Rwanda, brought by Victoire Ingabire, president of the Forces démocratiques unifiées (FDU)-Inkingi, an opposition party, serving a 15-years sentence after a flawed trial based partly on politically motivated charges.
Léonille Gasengayire, a FDU-Inkingi member, is arrested after visiting Ingabire in prison.
Illuminée Iragena, a nurse and FDU-Inkingi member, is reported missing. There has been no news of her since. People close to her fear she may have died in detention. Iragena is married to Martin Ntavuka, the FDU-Inkingi's former Kigali representative, who has been arrested at least twice since 2010 in connection with his political activities.
The police release Gasengayire, after beating and questioning her about a book she had attempted to bring to Ingabire in detention. She had also revealed that Iragena had been involved in trying to get the book to Ingabire.
A military court sentences Col. Tom Byabagamba, former head of the presidential guard, and retired Brig. Gen. Frank Rusagara, former secretary general of the Defense Ministry, to 21 and 20 years in prison respectively, including for inciting insurrection and tarnishing the government's image. The prosecution accused them of criticizing the government, alleging state involvement in assassinations of opponents, and complaining about foreign and economic policy. A prosecution witness said he was forced to testify against the two. Retired Sgt. François Kabayiza, found guilty of concealing evidence, is sentenced to five years. He said in court that military personnel had tortured him in detention.
An intelligence agent questions Epimack Kwokwo, former executive secretary of the Regional Human Rights League in the Great Lakes Region (Ligue des droits de la personne dans la région des Grands Lacs, LDGL), a regional nongovernmental organization that works on human rights issues, for several hours about his legal status in Rwanda and his work for the organization.
Bernard Ntaganda, an opposition leader, is arrested on suspicion that his party, the Social Party (PS)-Imberakuri, which has been unable to register, had wanted to organize a party meeting. He is charged with disobeying the enforcement of the law, organizing an illegal demonstration or public gathering, and illegal formation and leadership of a political organization, but is released the same day. Ntaganda had previously been arrested on June 24, 2010, and found guilty on February 11, 2011, of endangering national security, "divisionism" - inciting ethnic divisions - and attempting to organize demonstrations without official authorization. On appeal, the Supreme Court upheld the first two charges. He was released from prison in June 2014.
Caroline Buisman, Ingabire's Dutch lawyer in her case at the African Court, is expelled from Rwanda. She had been in the country with a tourist visa because the immigration authorities had not granted her a regular visa. Over the years, Rwanda has expelled and refused entry to several international human rights lawyers, journalists, and researchers.
Immigration services order Kwokwo, LDGL's former executive secretary and a Congolese national, to leave the country.
John Ndabarasa, a journalist at Sana Radio in Kigali, is reported missing. He is last seen in Kicukiro.
Gasengayire is rearrested and charged with inciting insurrection or disorder among the population, in relation to her opposition to the expropriation of local residents' land and of promoting the FDU-Inkingi.
Police tell news media that they opened an investigation into Ndabarasa's disappearance, after the Rwanda Media Commission, a media self-regulation body, informed them about the case.
Théophile Ntirutwa, Kigali representative of the FDU-Inkingi, is arrested, allegedly by military, in Nyarutarama, a Kigali suburb.
Ntirutwa is released, after being beaten and questioned about his membership in the FDU-Inkingi. Ntirutwa had previously complained several times to authorities about threats and harassment by local officials, including because of his opposition to the constitutional amendments.
A European Parliament delegation that visits Rwanda is denied access to visit Ingabire in detention.
The authorities arrest Joseph Nkusi, a Rwandan blogger deported from Norway, and question him about his political activities and his blog, which contains severe criticism of the Rwandan government, including unfounded theories about the genocide.
Robert Mugabe, editor of online media Great Lakes Voice, publishes an article alleging multiple kidnapping attempts in Kigali.
Mugabe says he was called in for questioning by the police and accused of treason and disobeying the law.
Shyaka Kanuma, a journalist and owner of Rwanda Focus, a Rwandan newspaper, is arrested, accused of tax evasion and fraud. Ten days earlier, he had sent several messages on WhatsApp announcing his intention to become an activist and saying he had been questioned by the head of the intelligence services. It is unclear whether his social media activities and his arrest and charges are linked.
January 12, 18, and 19
Boniface Twarigimana, the vice-president of the FDU-Inkingi, is questioned by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) of the Rwandan police about his alleged role in publishing information on extrajudicial killings. Human Rights Watch later reports on these killings and others in July.
Philippe Mpayimana arrives in Kigali from France and announces his intention to run as an independent presidential candidate. A pro-government online news outlet accuses him of minimizing the genocide, which Mpayimana denies.
Violette Uwamahoro, a Rwandan-British woman married to a member of the Rwanda National Congress (RNC), an opposition group in exile, visiting Rwanda to attend her father's funeral, is reported missing in Kigali.
Rwanda's withdrawal of its declaration allowing Rwandan individuals and non-governmental organizations access to the African Court on Human and Peoples' Rights comes into force.
The police announce that Uwamahoro is in government detention.
March 3 - 6
Two family members and an acquaintance of Uwamahoro are forcibly disappeared. One, a policeman, later resurfaces in court and testifies against Uwamahoro. The two others are released several weeks later.
Ndabarasa resurfaces in Kigali, more than six months after his disappearance in August 2016. He tells media that he had fled the country, but decided voluntarily to come back. The story raises suspicions.
The trial against Nkusi starts at the High Court in Kigali, which later declares itself incompetent to deal with the case.
Uwamahoro and a co-defendant are charged with revealing state secrets and offenses against the established government or the president. She is accused of inciting her co-accused to join the RNC and an armed movement outside of Rwanda.
The DGPR confirms Frank Habineza as the party's presidential candidate. The party had been able to register in August 2013, a week before the deadline for the September parliamentary elections that year.
The High Court chamber of Rusizi acquits and releases Gasengayire, after seven months in pretrial detention. During the trial, several witnesses say they were threatened.
Uwamahoro is released on bail because of insufficient evidence to warrant her ongoing detention.
Uwamahoro returns to the United Kingdom.
The Official Gazette is published, which contains National Electoral Commission regulations (from April 4) on social media use by candidates during the campaign. The regulations state that any candidate wanting to post campaign messages on social media networks must first submit the material to the commission for approval 48 hours in advance. The regulations draw criticism from government officials and the Rwanda Utilities Regulatory Authority.
Diana Rwigara announces her intention to run in the presidential election. Seventy-two hours later, nude photos of her are published on social media in an apparent attempt to humiliate and intimidate her. Rwigara said in international media that the photos were photoshopped.
The National Electoral Commission announces it will adjust its social media regulations based on public feedback.
Deadline for the applications from presidential candidates.
Rwigara, Gilbert Mwenedata, and Fred Sekikubo Barafinda are disqualified by the National Electoral Commission from participating in the elections.
Start of the electoral campaign.
Voting by the diaspora, in Rwandan embassies.
Presidential elections in Rwanda, with a 98.15 percent voter turnout. Kagame is re-elected with 98.79 percent of the vote. Mpayimana wins 0.73 percent and Habineza 0.48 percent of the vote.
Kagame is sworn in.