NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — Prosecutors have accused a top Rwandan opposition figure of trying to recruit fighters to destabilize Rwanda during a trial that some see as a litmus test for political expression in a nation still struggling to come to terms with the 1994 genocide.
Victoire Ingabire appeared in court in the Rwandan capital of Kigali Friday in a prisoner's uniform, handcuffs and with a shaved head. She is accused of genocide ideology, revisionism and backing terrorist groups. She has not yet entered a plea, but her four co-accused — former members of a brutal rebel group based in the Congo — have pleaded guilty.
Ingabire faces up to 30 years in prison.
Ingabire, who lived in the Netherlands for many years, returned to Rwanda in January 2010. Shortly after her return, she questioned why no Hutus were commemorated in a national monument to the genocide and promised to help Hutu prisoners.
It is illegal to question the official history of the genocide — something Ingabire, a Hutu, says should be allowed by a democratic government.
She was arrested several times following speeches, and banned from running in August presidential elections last year. She was eventually jailed in October 2010.
The case against Ingabire and her four co-accused has highlighted Rwanda's struggle to move beyond the 1994 genocide, when extremist Hutus killed more than 500,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus in Rwanda.
Almost a generation later, Rwanda has won international praise for a growing economy, promoting women's rights and cracking down on corruption. But activists say the economic gains have not been matched by growing freedoms.
The government of President Paul Kagame, who is a Tutsi, said Ingabire's speeches risked re-igniting violence and that Rwanda's law is no different to that forbidding Holocaust denial in Germany. Ingabire and other opposition leaders say that the government uses security concerns as an excuse to suppress any political dissent.
Prosecutors in this trial have also accused Ingabire of offering money to rebels in the Congo to form a new militia. They also said that Paul Rusesabagina, portrayed as a hero by Don Cheadle in the film "Hotel Rwanda," was Ingabire's accomplice, though he lives in the U.S. and has not been charged.
Ingabire's trial has attracted international attention and is being closely observed by human rights groups. Many embassies in Rwanda have also sent observers.
One lawyer described it as "a testament to the absence of democracy in Rwanda," saying that Rwanda had arrested and imprisoned all political opponents before the August 2010 elections.
"There is no democratic space. Rwanda is led by a dictatorship that does not tolerate dissidence. Its judiciary and press are instruments of its ideology," said lawyer Allison Turner, who has represented suspects accused of genocide before a U.N. tribunal.
Prosecutor General Martin Ngoga did not return calls seeking comment.
Carina Tertsakian, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, said it is clear that the government targets political opposition.
"There's definitely a pattern of arrest and imprisonment of opposition leaders, and members of those parties," said Tertsakian, who had to leave Rwanda last year after the government canceled her work visa. "There's similar pattern targeting journalists who are critical of the government."
Human Rights Watch says the first two charges against Ingabire appear to be political, because they were only based on a speech she gave. But her case is complicated by charges that she backed a breakaway militia, said Tertsakian.
State prosecutor Bonaventure Ruberwa said this week that Ingabire was trying to form a militia using contacts with Hutus who perpetrated the Rwandan genocide before they fled across the border to Congo and formed a group known by its French acronym FDLR. The militia is infamous for mutilating and murdering civilians and kidnapping child soldiers.
Ruberwa said that Ingabire used contacts in Belgium, Tanzania, Uganda and Congo to send them money for ammunition. She believed causing instability within Rwanda's borders would force the government to negotiate with the opposition, he said.
Tertsakian said there are many other cases of political prosecutions in Rwanda, including a four year sentence given to the head of another political party, Bernard Ntaganda, based on speeches he gave and a priest who was jailed for criticizing government policy in sermon.
Members of opposition parties were frequently arrested in the lead up to the August 2010 elections and journalists who have published articles critical of the government have been jailed or found dead. The mutilated body of one senior opposition figure was found three weeks before the presidential election. President Kagame was re-elected with 93 percent of the vote.