Victoire Ingabire praises Kagame, Rwanda’s prisons

Ingabire: “There is a sense of humanity in Rwandan prisons. I am grateful to the prison and justice officials for the respect of human rights that prevail there.”

KIGALI | Freed Rwandan opposition leader “can’t thank President Paul Kagame enough” for exercising the prerogative of mercy that saw her and 2,139 other convicts walk to freedom on Saturday.

Ingabire, who leads the unregistered FDU-Inkingi opposition party, was freed along with other prisoners, including singer Kizito Mihigo, jailed in 2015 for plotting to kill Kagame.

A vocal critic of Kagame until her arrest in April 2010 for belittling the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi and other treason-related crimes, Ingabire has spent eight years in jail having to endure life in a pink prison dress and clean-shaven pate. She had exhausted legal appeal for her freedom.

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However, in June, she took a shot at clemency when she asked President Kagame to forgive her. She got it Friday when Kagame commuted her sentence as well as for 2,139 other convicts approved by Cabinet.

At Gereza ya Nyarugenge (Nyarugenge Prison), journalists were camped outside the high raise gate of the new correctional facility that was built to merge all prisons in Kigali. They were here by 6am, like hawks awaiting at the abattoir, for their day’s meal.

The local and international journalists were waiting for two particular convicts; Ingabire and Mihigo.

Ingabire, who turns 50 next month, is a mother of three children who live with her husband in the Netherlands.

Shortly after 9am, Ingabire, for the first time in eight years, walked out of a prison gate spotting hair — more like she had been informed she would get clemency and had been allowed by Rwanda Correctional Services to grow her hair in preparation for this day.

Her hair was still short, but she permed it and it glinted in the early morning sun. She wore dark-tinted glasses. She is bespectacled and has been known to wear clear lens, but Saturday morning, she had what look like mercury lens on.

Ingabire also wasn’t in the the pink prison dress that had become part of her life the last eight years. Instead, for her big day, she chose a red dress that she made complete with a green jacket.

Whatever the symbolism in the short hair, dark lens and the dress, what didn’t pass the conclusion is that her dress were the only traces the political activism left in the Victoire Ingabire who was jailed eight years ago.

She completed the appearance with a scarf, a white traditionally woven handbag and black shoes.

The colours, it is said, are for her political party, FDU Inkingi. The party has never been registered and its activity remains just that — illegal per Rwandan electoral laws.

Flanked by her lawyer Gatera Gashabana, Ingabire told waiting reporters that her release was a positive sign [in the political climate of Rwanda]. She was in cloud nine and grinned from ear to ear.

“There is hope for the opening of the political space,” Ingabire said, thanking the president for granting her mercy. “I would also ask him to release other political prisoners who remain here.”

Eight officials of the FDU-Inkingi, including Ingabire’s deputy, still remain in detention, Gashabana told journalists as he welcomed the decision to at least free Ingabire.

Another opposition figure, Diane Rwigara, who tried to run against Kagame in a 2017 presidential election, is also in detention.

Rwigara was arrested with her mother last year, accused of inciting an insurrection and using forged documents. The pair are due to appear in court on September 24.

“I can’t thank president Kagame enough for having considered my application for pardon,” Ingabire said.

Most people seeing pictures of Ingabire suggested that she appeared to “nice and healthy” despite the times behind bars. Allegations in a section of Western media has had it that Ingabire was leading a bad life in jail.

But she said said: “There is a sense of humanity in Rwandan prisons. I am grateful to the prison and justice officials for the respect of human rights that prevail there.”

The remarks will probably not go down well with rights watchdogs that have always held that the Kigali administration is among the worst human rights violators in the world.

For Ingabire to suggest that Rwandan prisons were as humane enough to be praised openly when it is the face of prisons world over to be a facility for mistreatment, torture and human rights violations will no doubt take many aback.

But she was not yet done.

“Over the last eight years I’ve bn in prison, I witnessed a lot of improvement in conditions, even as there is room for improvement and I was also able to follow all the progress the country made. A lot has been achieved and I think we can achieve more together,” Ingabire said in apparent reflection of the political changes and climate, citing the recent parliamentary elections.

Her lawyer welcomed the decision to free her but said it came with certain conditions.

“This is a conditional release,” Gashabana said, adding that Ingabire must report her place of residence to the prosecutor. And, like a parole, she also cannot leave the country without permission of the government.

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