By BYANSI Samuel Baker
KIGALI- A smiling Victoire Ingabire, a Rwandan opposition leader never thought the day would come when she would be a free woman again. She is speaking to journalists, talking on the phone and hugging party members. All at the same time.
“I was asleep when the news came,” Ingabire tells reporters shortly after her release. When news came, all inmates shouted Ingabire’s name and she woke up.
“I switched on the radio and then there was this announcement that I was among those pardoned by the president and released.”
The opposition politician acknowledges the ruling government has started on the right path for releasing political prisoners but says more needs to be done.
On this bright Saturday morning, she is walking out of Nyrugenge prison down to Kigali city talking to people with a smile while watching people go about their business.
The opposition politician was released from prison after serving eight years of a 15-year jail term. She talks repeatedly that she was in jail because of politics but it was something she had long prepared for.
The head of the FDU-Inkingi opposition party, she walked free on Saturday after the government approved the early release of more than 2,140 prisoners.
Little has been said about the reasons behind their release. The Cabinet meeting chaired by President Paul Kagame on Friday approved the early release of 2,140 convicts found eligible under relevant provisions of law,” a justice minister statement read.
“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,” the justice minister statement states.
Ingabire returned from exile in The Netherlands intending to run for president in 2010 as leader of the FDU-Inkingi party.
She was found guilty of conspiracy to undermine the government and denying Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, charges that she denied. She was sentenced to 15 years.
As she walked out of the prison, another Rwandan musician Kizito Mihigo who was also arrested in 2015 and jailed for 10 years for conspiring to assassinate Kagame was freed.
“For five years, I was jailed in a solitary confinement and this was the hardest part in jail but I was somehow prepared mentally,” she said.
Her trial was widely criticized. Last year, the Arusha-based African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights ruled that Rwanda had violated Ingabire’s rights to freedom of speech and adequate defense, and the court demanded for a retrial.
However, Rwanda ignored the ruling. Human rights activists including well-known Human Rights Watch had described the charges against Ingabire as politically motivated and linked to her efforts to challenge the ruling party ahead of the 2010 presidential election.
Ingabire says she wants to practice politics that unites all Rwandans. She acknowledges that a lot has been achieved by the current government while in prison.
“But a lot more can be achieved while working together. I am happy that the president has realized it’s time to work with all Rwandans of different political views.”
The government has strengthened the economy, reduced child mortality pushed for more women in political office, and Rwanda now has a higher percentage of women in parliament.
Though President Kagame has been praised for bringing stability and economic growth, he has faced criticism for restricting political freedom.
The release didn’t not only surprise Ingabire but many got surprised in the capital Kigali because it is unusual such prisoners accused of serious crimes like “belittling” 1994 genocide against Tutsis can be pardoned.
“I thank the president for releasing me and I urge him also to release other political prisoners,” Ingabire said.
One question Ingabire does not want to answer now is whether she asked for pardon from the president. Party members have announced Ingabire never asked for pardon as she never committed any crime in the first place.
“The president has powers under the constitution to pardon prisoners,” is what Ingabire replies in response to whether she asked for clemency.
But as Ingabire gains her freedom, the prison gate is still slammed behind detained Diane Rwigara, who tried to challenge Kagame in last year’s election but was disqualified over allegations that she forged some signatures on her nomination papers. She denied it. She later was charged with inciting insurrection.
Human rights groups claim Rwanda’s government has been under pressure over Rwigara’s arrest and that Ingabire’s release was meant to ease it.