THE authorities in Rwanda have cracked down on the opposition, media, and civil society ahead of general elections scheduled for 15 July 2024, reports Human Rights Watch. The authorities should ensure that all Rwandans are able to freely express their views and exercise their vote fairly and peacefully and release people arbitrarily detained, including on politically motivated grounds.

Fourteen members of the unregistered Dalfa-Umurinzi opposition party and four journalists and critics are behind bars. Several are awaiting trial – some have been in pretrial detention for more than two years – and others have been convicted of offenses incompatible with international human rights norms. Since the country’s last presidential election in 2017, at least five opposition members and four critics and journalists have died or disappeared in suspicious circumstances.

“The threat of physical harm, arbitrary judicial proceedings, and long prison sentences, which can often lead to torture, have effectively deterred many Rwandans from engaging in opposition activities and demanding accountability from their political leaders”, said Clémentine de Montjoye, senior researcher in the Africa division at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should end arbitrary detentions and guarantee the rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly, essential to genuinely free and fair elections.”

Three candidates are running for president: the incumbent president Paul Kagame (Rwandan Patriotic Front, RPF); Frank Habineza (Democratic Green Party of Rwanda, DGPR); and an independent candidate, Philippe Mpayimana. In 2017, when the same candidates were registered, both Habineza and Mpayimana said they experienced harassment, threats, and intimidation after announcing their candidacy. Mpayimana won 0.73 percent of the votes and Habineza won 0.48 percent.

During President Kagame’s decades in power, government authorities have committed numerous human rights violations against political opposition members, journalists, and other critics, including arbitrary arrests, torture, and ill-treatment, and infringed the rights to freedom of expression and association. Suspicious deaths and disappearances, for which justice is rarely if ever delivered, have also created an environment in which many fear they will be targeted if they speak out. Most registered political parties have been broadly supportive of the ruling RPF.

Human Righst Watch says Rwandan civil society is weak, due to many years of state intimidation and interference, leaving Rwandan human rights organisations largely unable to publicly document violations by state agents. Foreign researchers and journalists have been blocked from entering the country, including a Human Rights Watch senior researcher who attempted to travel to Kigali for meetings in May 2024.

* More information and a non-exhautive list of suspicious deaths and disappearances of opposition members here.

* Source: Human Rights Watch