Paul Kagame, Rwanda’s president, has approved the early release of more than 2,000 prisoners, including a leading opposition figure who was jailed in 2012 for conspiring to undermine the government.
The administration gave no further explanation for its decision to release Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza, whose detention had garnered international attention. Gospel singer Kizito Mihigo, jailed for 10 years in 2015 after making a song that criticised the government, was also freed.
In a short statement on Friday the ministry of justice said the government had approved the early release of 2,140 eligible convicts. “Among them are Mr Kizito Mihigo and Ms Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza, the remainder of whose sentences were commuted by Presidential prerogative following their most recent applications for clemency in June this year,” it said.
The release may give opposition members and regime critics some hope that Mr Kagame could be ready to ease his tight grip on Rwandan politics, but some obervers remain sceptical.
Mr Kagame has been praised for transforming the central African nation from a failed state haunted by the memory of a brutal genocide into a thriving economy, but he has done so at the expense of political competition. Several critics who have gone into exile have died in mysterious circumstances and dozens of opposition figures have been imprisoned.
In power since 2000, Mr Kagame changed the constitution in 2015 by referendum to allow him to remain president until 2034. He won re-election last year with 99 per cent of the vote and has allowed his ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front to dominate much of the economy.
Ms Ingabire returned from exile in the Netherlands in 2010 to take part in presidential elections but was blocked from competing. Two years later she was charged with inciting the population, forming an army to overthrow the government and downplaying the impact of the genocide — in which some 800,000 ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed.
Last year a pan-African court ruled that Ms Ingabire’s rights had been violated during her trial but Rwanda ignored the ruling. The court, based in Tanzania, did not order Ms Ingabire’s release but gave the Rwandan government six months to “rectify the harm done.”
Ms Ingabire, a member of the Hutu ethnic group, smiled as she was released on Saturday in a green jacket and orange dress, the colours of her FDU-Inkingi political party.
“It took me by surprise but I hope this is the start of the opening of the political space in Rwanda”, Ms Ingabire told Radio France International, after she was released. The opposition leader said she had no plans to cease her political activities.
“For me prison was a part of the journey and I will continue my struggle”, she said. Many other opposition figures, including Diane Rwigara, who was taken from her home by police after she tried to run against Mr Kagame in last year’s election, remain in prison.
“It’s significant that [Ingabire’s] been released, in terms of what [she] represents as a very high-profile Hutu woman leader,” said Phil Clark, a central Africa expert at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. “But I don’t see it as the definite opening up of the political space.”
Nine members of Ms Ingabire’s party remain in prison and the ruling party has a record of holding and then releasing opposition leaders when it seems expedient, Mr Clark said.
“She was arrested at a time that she was seen as a political threat to Kagame’s rule. Now that her party has effectively been neutralised it’s quite convenient for the RPF to release her,” he said.