KIGALI, Rwanda — At first glance, Victoire Ingabire hardly seems the type to be challenging an African strongman. Staid and soft-spoken, she could easily be mistaken for a mid-career accountant — which she was until last year when she quit her job in the Netherlands and returned to take up politics in her homeland.

Now, as head of the United Democratic Forces party, she has emerged as the most prominent challenger to Rwandan President Paul Kagame in the run-up to this country’s August election.

Yet this does not mean her name will be on the ballot, as dissent is increasingly stifled in Rwanda. Two months before the poll, authorities have prevented Ingabire from registering her party, and she is currently being held under extended house arrest, awaiting trial on charges of “divisionism,” “association with terrorist groups,” and “genocide ideology.”

Last week, Peter Erlinder, the American attorney who flew in to defend Ingabire, was arrested in Kigali for engaging in “conspiracy theories and denial surrounding the circumstances of the genocide.”

The charges against both Ingabire and Erlinder have sparked growing Western criticism of Kagame, a figure often praised for transforming a shattered Rwanda into one of Africa’s fastest growing economies.

The Rwandan government is “doing everything it can to silence independent voices before the election,” charges the New-York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch, whose researcher on Rwanda left the country in April when her visa renewal application was rejected.

While the United States remains a military ally and key source of development aid to Rwanda, American diplomats are beginning to warn of diminishing political space in the country. In a speech last week to Congress, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson said the political environment in Rwanda was “riddled with a series of worrying actions.”

“We appreciate, in the context of the most tragic event in recent history — the genocide — the need for security, stability and reconciliation is critical, but long-term stability is best promoted by democratic governance and respect for human rights,” said Carson.

Much Western criticism concentrates on a series of laws restricting free speech that Kagame’s Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) has enacted since seizing power in the wake of the 1994 genocide. In Rwanda, denying the genocide of 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus is grounds for up to 20 years in prison. “Divisionism,” defined as “any speech, written statement or action that causes conflict or that causes an uprising that may degenerate into strife among people,” can also bring jail time.

Rwanda, with a population of 9.7 million, is one of Africa’s most densely populated countries, at 590 per square mile, according to the United Nations. About 84 percent of the population is Hutu and 15 percent is Tutsi.

Ingabire, a Hutu, has been accused of stirring up ethnic rivalries by disputing the genocide’s official history. In particular, she has called for the government to acknowledge atrocities committed by the RPF against Hutu during the genocide period. A U.N. report estimates the RPF killed up to 45,000 people between April and September 1994, but those events have been erased from the official history.

Prosecutors further allege Ingabire maintains close links with members of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a Congo-based rebel group formed by the remnants of Hutu death squads which is still bent on destabilizing Rwanda.

Erlinder, a professor at William Mitchell College of Law in Saint Paul, Minn., is lead defense counsel for genocide suspects at the U.N. International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. He has long been an outspoken RPF critic. In April, Erlinder and two fellow attorneys filed a lawsuit in an Oklahoma City federal court alleging that Kagame gave orders in 1994 to shoot down the plane of then-President Juvenal Habyarimana, the event that triggered the genocide. Kagame has long pinned the assassination on Hutu extremists disillusioned with Habyarimana’s signing of a peace deal with the RPF, then a Kagame-led rebel army at war since 1990 with the Hutu-dominated Habyarimana government.

Erlinder has also publicly blamed Kagame for more than 6 million deaths in neighboring eastern Congo, where he alleges the RPF’s 1996 invasion to pursue “genocidaires” (those responsible for the genocide) was the principle catalyst of the continuing conflict there, which remains one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.

While the plights of both Ingabire and Erlinder are uncertain, the charges against them have exposed a fundamental — if unlawful — debate over the nature of reconciliation in post-genocide Rwanda.

Kagame, bent on improving education and promoting economic growth, believes that combating ignorance and poverty will negate two key conditions of past violence. Yet because the ethnic divide is still deeply entrenched in Rwandan society, open discussion of ethnicity is forbidden and speech that could provoke ethnic rivalries is stifled through regulations like the ones used to press charges against Ingabire and Erlinder.

An element of this strategy is restriction of the media. In 1994, according to most accounts, the Rwandan media played a key role in inciting anti-Tutsi violence — mainly through hate-filled radio broadcasts — before and during the genocide. Now the Kagame government is trying to enforce a responsible press, which is leading to accusations of censorship.

Recently, in a move condemned by most Western human rights groups, the Rwandan government suspended publication of two Kinyarwanda-language newspapers, charging that they printed “reckless innuendo.” One newspaper, “Umuseso,” is said to have written the following:

“The queue of those who want change in the governance of this country (and not a peaceful one since all avenues for peaceful revolution can no longer work) is growing by the day. This is leading Rwanda into total darkness.”

Ingabire, who spoke to GlobalPost from her Kigali home, believes that muzzling contentious dialogue will only make the ethnic issue fester. Despite Rwanda’s economic successes, she argues, the largely Hutu Rwandan majority resent the concentration of power in the hands of an elite cadre of Kagame loyalists, most of them Anglophone Tutsis who joined the RPF from exile in Uganda in the years before the genocide.

Ingabire cites the recent switch in Rwanda’s language of education and government from French to English as a policy that will further marginalize “Francophone” Rwandans, a term often used as a euphemism for “Hutu.”

“The government says that by talking about Hutus and Tutsis you create a problem,” she said, adding she still hopes that her charges will be dropped and she’ll be allowed to contest the election. “But if we don’t talk about this problem it will not be resolved. We cannot always use the genocide as a reason why people cannot be free in their own country.”

Editor's note: This dispatch was updated to clarify the debate over reconciliation in Rwanda.

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