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Western pressure grows against Kagame over rights abuses

UK and US critique of Kigali's political record raises questions about its hosting of the Commonwealth summit

The death in custody of revered Rwandan musician Kizito Mihigo and the coming trial of Paul Rusesabagina, the hero of the movie Hotel Rwanda, are focusing renewed attention on President Paul Kagame's governance record. A book to be published next month about the murder of Patrick Karegeya, former head of military intelligence turned opposition activist, is likely to add to international concern*.

Rights activists say this should raise doubts about the choice of Rwanda to host the twice-delayed Commonwealth Heads of Government summit in June. 

Kigali has established a favoured reputation for convenience and efficiency as a conference venue but there are public health concerns about the viability of organising such an event attended by thousands of delegates with the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic coursing through Africa and Europe.

Kagame's regime was sharply criticised in the country's Universal Periodic Review (UPR) at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva last month, receiving 284 recommendations from 99 countries. It accepted 160 recommendations, but has consistently rejected demands that it should sign up to the Convention against Enforced Disappearances and to allow the UN Sub-committee on Prevention of Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment to resume its visits.

Meanwhile, the UK government raised criticisms of the 'continued restrictions to civil and political rights and media freedom' in Rwanda.

British and US officials joined Human Rights Watch in calling for an independent probe into the death in police custody last year of Kizito Mihigo, the celebrated activist and singer (AC Vol 55 No 8, Militant remembrance). The request has been ignored by Rwanda's justice ministry.

And the European Parliament demanded the 'immediate release' of Paul Rusesabagina, describing his arrest as an 'enforced disappearance' in a resolution adopted last week. Although the resolution is non-binding, it is the strongest attack on Kagame's government by an EU institution. 

Rusesabagina is likely to face trial this week on charges of terrorism and financing an armed rebel group, having been detained since August (AC Vol 61 No 18, Exile flies into a trap). 

For now, there is no sign of concessions from Kagame's government, which has dismissed the US and UK claims as having 'no basis in reality'. However, his ministers are said to have been taken aback by the ferocity of the criticism from two of its major donors.

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