Amnesty: Rwanda polls marred by chilling 'climate of fear'

Rwanda's presidential election next month will be held under "a climate of fear" following two decades of often deadly attacks on political opponents, journalists and rights activists, Amnesty International charged Friday, calling for serious political reforms in the East African country.

"Since the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front took power 23 years ago, Rwandans have faced huge, and often deadly, obstacles to participating in public life and voicing criticism of government policy," said Muthoni Wanyeki, an Amnesty official in East Africa. "The climate in which the upcoming elections take place is the culmination of years of repression."

Many killings and disappearances, including some recent ones, have been blamed on the government of President Paul Kagame, who has been his country's de facto leader or elected president since the end of the 1994 genocide.

Kagame is credited with leading Rwanda to stability and impressive economic growth but critics say he is an authoritarian who is intolerant of legitimate opposition.

In next month's election, scheduled for Aug. 4, Kagame is running against Frank Habineza of the Democratic Green Party of Rwanda, according to a provisional list published by the country's electoral commission. Other nominees, including Diane Rwigara, are still awaiting approval. A final list of candidates is due to be published Friday amid accusations the electoral commission is deliberately frustrating legitimate opposition candidates.

After Rwigara, who speaks strongly against the government's alleged crimes, announced plans to seek the presidency, nude photos purportedly of her were circulated on social media in an apparent smear campaign.

Rights activists and other perceived government opponents face various forms of attack and restriction, non-governmental organizations are subject to difficult registration procedures and independent journalist have been silenced, Amnesty said.

The rights group is urging Rwanda's government to protect opposition candidates and their supporters, and to initiate "far-reaching reforms before the next election in 2024."

Kagame and other top Rwandan officials often suggest they don't care what foreigners say about governance in the country. In his most recent remarks, broadcast by Rwanda Television on Tuesday, Kagame accused some Western diplomats of meddling in the country's internal affairs and urged them to stop.

It was not immediately possible to get a comment from Rwanda' government regarding the allegations by Amnesty.

Kagame is widely expected to win comfortably. Having already served two terms, Kagame seeks re-election following a referendum in December 2015 that cleared his path to a third term. He remains a popular figure across the country, and in interviews many Rwandans say they are happy with his firm leadership. Some point out that petty corruption in the official bureaucracy has been almost eradicated under Kagame.

But critics, including some who once were Kagame's allies, see him differently, and the charges against his government often include murder and forced disappearances.

In one recent case Jean Damascene Habarugira, a local party representative of the unregistered opposition United Democratic Force party, went missing in May after being called to meet an official responsible for village security.

Damascene's family were called to collect his body from hospital a few days later, and his party believes he was murdered because he opposed the government's agricultural planning policy, according to Amnesty.