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Sympathy for Rwanda begins to fade Add to ...

For years, Rwanda's government was assured of loyal sympathy from around the world. Everyone remembered the horrors of the 1994 genocide, when an estimated 800,000 Rwandans were killed by Hutu extremists while the world idly watched.

For 16 years, that sympathy has muted any misgivings about Rwanda's authoritarian government. World leaders from Tony Blair to George Bush have heaped praise on Rwanda, touting it as an emerging African leader, a business-friendly nation with an impressive record on environmental protection and women's rights.

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But this year, as evidence piles up of Rwandan abuses in Congo and other African locations, the sympathy is fading.

On Friday, the United Nations will release a report that documents how the Rwandan military rounded up and massacred tens of thousands of Hutu refugees in Congo in the late 1990s. The murders were so widespread and systematic that they could be classified as "crimes of genocide," according to a leaked copy of the report.

This is evidence of a new willingness to criticize Rwanda's human rights violations, its crackdowns on dissent, and even its suspected involvement in an attempted assassination in South Africa.

Criticism has come from many other quarters, too. After a landslide victory by Rwandan President Paul Kagame in an election last month, the U.S. administration said it was "concerned about a series of disturbing events" during the Rwandan election campaign.

Mr. Kagame has ruled Rwanda since taking power by military force in 1994 after the genocide, and he has allowed few opposition leaders to challenge him. He was declared the victor of last month's election with an overwhelming 93 per cent of the vote.

But the Obama administration in Washington said it was alarmed by the events in Rwanda before the election, including the suspension of two independent newspapers, the expulsion of a human rights researcher, the decision to prohibit two opposition parties from participating in the election, and the arrest of a number of journalists. Rwanda's stability will be difficult to sustain "in the absence of broad political debate and open political participation," the White House said in its statement.

Human rights groups have echoed those concerns. Human Rights Watch, the independent U.S.-based group, said the election last month was marked by "increasing political repression and a crackdown on free speech."

In the six months leading up to the Rwandan election, there was "a worrying pattern of intimidation, harassment and other abuses - ranging from killings and arrests to restrictive administrative measures - against opposition parties, journalists, members of civil society and other critics," Human Rights Watch said.

Meanwhile, there is mounting evidence that the Rwandan government may have been involved in the attempted assassination of a former Rwandan army leader who fled to South Africa this year. The incident has prompted South Africa to recall its ambassador from Rwanda, a clear indication of South Africa's anger over Rwandan involvement in the case.

The target of the assassination attempt was Lieutenant-General Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa, former chief of staff of the Rwandan army and a former close ally of Mr. Kagame. He fled to South Africa in February after a falling out with Mr. Kagame and has become a vocal critic of the Rwandan government.

Gen. Nyamwasa was shot and seriously injured in front of his Johannesburg home on June 19. While recovering in hospital, five suspects tried again to kill him, according to South African authorities. They allegedly planned to pose as hospital visitors and then strangle him with a piece of string.

A wealthy Rwandan businessman, Pascal Kanyandekwe, has been charged with involvement in both attempts to kill the former army chief. The South African government has publicly stated that foreign "security operatives" - presumably from Rwanda - were involved in the attempted assassination.

A South African magistrate, who denied bail to Mr. Kanyandekwe last week, said the suspect had "the backing of the government of a country" - another clear reference to the Rwandan government. Evidence placed before the court suggests that the suspects "were acting on the instructions of the Rwandan government," the Johannesburg Star reported.

A Rwandan journalist, Jean Leonard Rugambage, was shot dead in June after his newspaper reported that the Rwandan government was involved in the assassination attempt in South Africa. He was one of the few remaining independent journalists in Rwanda.

The Rwandan government has fiercely denied every allegation against it. It denies any involvement in the attempted assassination in South Africa. "We find these insinuations very alarming," Rwandan Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo said in July. "Naturally, there is no truth to this."

She also rejected the UN report and its allegations of Rwandan involvement in the massacre of tens of thousands of Hutu refugees in Congo. She said the report was "fatally flawed" and "incredibly irresponsible."

Follow on Twitter: @geoffreyyork

 

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