Jailed Rwandan journalists appeal to African Commission
Rwandan journalists Agnes Uwimana and Saidat Mukakibibi, currently serving prison sentences for having defamed President Kagame and endangered national security, have appealed to the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights.
Two Rwandan journalists, jailed for four and three years for allegedly defaming President Kagame and endangering national security, have filed a complaint with the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. Agnes Uwimana-Nkusi and Saidati Mukakibibi, who wrote for the Kinyarwanda-language bi-weekly publication Umurabyo argue that their right to freedom of expression has been violated and that they did not receive a fair trial.
Uwimana-Nkusi and Mukakibibi had originally been sentenced to 17 and 7 years in prison for inciting “divisionism” and genocide denial as well as endangering national security and defaming the president in a series of articles published in Umurabyo criticising various aspects of government policy.
On appeal, the Supreme Court quashed the convictions for inciting divisionism and genocide denial, but upheld the other convictions.
In their articles, Uwimana-Nkusi and Mukakibibi criticised agriculture policy, the gacaca court system through which justice is dispensed for genocidaires, and the handling of corruption among government officials. They had previously been warned by Rwanda’s government-appointed Media Council to “tone down” their criticism, and following their insistence on an editorial line that was independent of the government they were arrested and charged.
The Umurabyo journal in which the articles were published had a circulation of about 200 copies every other week.
The complaint to the African Commission states that the journalists’ right to freedom of expression has been violated: their writings were a legitimate exercise of their right and duty as journalists to critically assess government policies and contribute to public debate on issues of public interest. The complaint also states that throughout the process, their fair trial rights were violated as well. The Supreme Court essentially reversed the burden of proof, leaving the journalists “guilty until proven innocent”, in violation of the African Charter as well as other international standards on criminal justice. The harshness of the sentences imposed is an additional clear violation of their right to freedom of expression.
The complaint was filed on behalf of the journalists by their legal defence team, consisting of MLDI’s Legal Counsel, Nani Jansen, London-based barristers John Jones and Holly Scott-Mason, and Rwandan lawyers Evaliste Nsabayezu and Jean-Claude Muhikira. The team previously jointly represented the journalists in their appeal before the Supreme Court.
“We hope the African Commission will investigate the complaint and find in favour of the journalists,” said MLDI’s Legal Counsel Nani Jansen.
“These journalists should never have been imprisoned for their writings. Having the African Commission speak out against their convictions would not only provide just satisfaction for the journalists themselves, but could also set a good precedent for other journalists in Rwanda who currently cannot practice their profession freely.”
The initial complaint will be considered during the 51st session of the African Commission, scheduled to take place on 9-22 October 2012 in Cote d’Ivoire. The Commission will then decide whether it will need to hear further argument on admissibility and the merits.