Dutch Minister Knapen concerned about freedom rights in Rwanda
“Rwanda cannot be captured in one-liners”, concluded Ben Knapen, Dutch minister for International Cooperation and European Affairs after a whirlwind visit to the country. This tiny central African nation manages to polarise opinions in the Netherlands. On the one hand the Rwandan government is admired for the rapid economic growth after the country was destroyed by the genocide and war of 1994. But others accuse the leaders in the capital Kigali of intolerance and harassing anyone who criticises them.
By Ilona Eveleens, Kigali
In a meeting with Rwandan President Paul Kagame and other government officials Minister Knapen expressed the Netherlands’ worries over the limited freedom of expression in Rwanda. “We are concerned about the reaction to different opinions”, remarked Knapen in an interview with Radio Netherlands. But he added that one should also have some understanding for fear and insecurity after the genocide.
The Dutch public opinion is up in arms about the incarceration of Victoire Ingabire, a Rwandan opposition leader, accused of conspiring with ethnic Hutu extremists. She is in prison since mid-October awaiting trial. Mrs Ingabire already lived in the Netherlands before the genocide in 1994 and only returned to Rwanda early last year when she tried to participate in the presidential elections in vain.
Minister Knapen not only expressed his worry about the lack of freedom of expression to Kagame. He also raised the issue with the Rwandan minister of Justice, Tharcisse Karagurama. The case of two local journalists, recently convicted to 17 and 7 years imprisonment for incitement, was discussed. Knapen: “Minister Karagurama told me he himself was baffled by the sternness of the sentences”.
The Rwandan government is sensitive to criticism of the local media after media hate speeches in 1994 contributed to the execution of the genocide. More than 800.000 ethnic Tutsi’s and moderated Hutu’s were slaughtered within 3 months by the Hutu-extremists.
Instigators of the genocide fled to neighbouring Congo and organised themselves in what is presently known as the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR). Its militias are held responsible for crimes against humanity in Congo. The government in Kigali considers them as a threat to the security of Rwanda.
Kigali also worries about other elements of the former extremist regime who fled to North America and Europe. They are amongst the lobbyists who try to influence public opinion in the West to demand an end to financial aid to Rwanda, while accusing president Kagame of being a dictator.
Almost seventeen years after the genocide reconciliation between the different ethnic groups in Rwanda has not been achieved. Knapen, who met during his tour people involved in trying to bring Hutu and Tutsi together, said: “Reconciliation is a very thin layer. A lot more work needs to be done”.