Rwanda’s fierce government critic Diane Rwigara and her mother Adeline Rwigara have been freed on bail, according to her family.
Rwigara appeared in court Friday facing charges of incitement and fraud. Her mother, who was also in court, was being held on charges of discrimination and sectarian practices and inciting insurrection.
But three High Court judges ruled that the prosecution did not give credible reasons why they should be detained during their trial, according to local media The East African.
They ordered mother and daughter, who have been in jail since September 2017, to be freed on bail.
The court erupted in shouts as excited family members rushed to hug the pair on hearing the news.
Her brother Arioste Rwigara told CNN: “We are overjoyed by this great news! We had faith this day would come soon. We thank God for it, and we are forever grateful to family, friends and all the other people who remained close to us during this hard time and showed us support.”
Arioste added that while Friday’s result was a positive step, the future remains uncertain. Asked whether Friday’s outcome could signal a dropping of charges, he said: “Nothing is certain at this point. But we hope they will be, because they never should have been charged with anything in the first place, let alone imprisoned.”
Diane Rwigara was the sole female challenger in last year’s election that President Paul Kagame won with almost 99% of the vote.
The 37-year-old accountant launched her election bid three months ahead of the August 2017 presidential vote.
Shortly after she began her campaign, Rwigara was disqualified by electoral authorities.
They said that she exaggerated the number of signatures needed to qualify and accused her of submitting the names of dead people, charges Rwigara denies.
Her supporters say all the charges are politically motivated and highlight a lack of political and social freedoms under Kagame.
Kagame shocked many in his country and around the world in September when he granted more than 2,000 prisoners an unexpected pardon.
Among the 2,410 prisoners released was Victoire Ingabire, the 49-year-old leader of the opposition FDU-Inkingi party. She had served eight years of her 15-year sentence
Ingabire has long said her sentence was a result of her work as a prominent government critic and that the charges effectively criminalized her freedom of expression. International organizations such as Amnesty International and a 2017 African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights ruling have supported those views.
Kagame won the 2010 election with 93% of the vote. By the time the next presidential election came around in 2017, Rwigara had entered the political scene seeking to run as an independent candidate after she was disqualified as a candidate.
Rwigara launched the People Salvation Movement (Itabaza), an activist group to “encourage Rwandans to hold their government accountable.” Shortly after its inception, she was arrested on charges of incitement and fraud.
Ingabire shared a jail cell with Diane Rwigara at the end of her imprisonment and was present at the Rwigaras’ hearing. Ingabire told CNN on Friday she was “glad” to hear the news and called it a “good step” in the “good direction,” but stressed that many other political prisoners are still imprisoned awaiting trial, including nine members of her own opposition party, and she called for their release.
“The Kagame government should not (just) release the opposition and think that is enough. It is a step but they should understand that what our country needs is a society with room for critical voices to speak freely and peacefully,” Ingabire said.
“We have to end the cycle of political violence in Rwanda and build it into a reconciled nation, hopeful of durable peace and prosperity,” she added.
Although Rwigara was unconnected with any political party or Ingabire herself, the parallels between the two women’s cases are clear, according to Phil Clark, a political scientist at SOAS University of London who has studied Rwanda for nearly 20 years.
“Really we’re seeing the exact same thing with Rwigara as we saw with Ingabire in terms of the targeting of a woman political opponent,” he told CNN.
“The government will often lock up political opponents at the height of their powers and then strategically release them once they feel that they or their party has been neutralized,” Clark said.
Clark said that the High Court’s decision to release the Rwigaras on bail Friday reflects an evolving dynamic within the judicial system.
“I see this more in terms in an increasingly independent Rwandan judiciary… a trend in the Rwandan High Court and Supreme Court to hand down decisions that aren’t entirely in line with the executive wishes.”
He cautioned against reading too much into the Rwigaras’ temporary release, explaining that the pair could still be found guilty of their charges once evidence is heard in court.
But what Friday’s result does demonstrate, Clark says, is that the Rwanda’s High Court “won’t simply follow the expected script in this case.”