JOHANNESBURG – The four men were once members of the Rwandan president's inner circle. Now they've fled the country and say they fear for their lives even in exile as he steps up efforts to silence their criticism.
A Rwandan court convicted them in absentia and sentenced them to at least 20 years in prison each if they return home. One also has survived what he believes is an assassination attempt near his home in South Africa, though Rwanda denies any involvement.
President Paul Kagame's former attorney general, intelligence chief, army chief and chief of staff all were convicted earlier this month by a Rwandan military court of disturbing public order, threatening state security, sectarianism and criminal conspiracy.
The men once loyal to Kagame now accuse him of threatening both democracy in their homeland and stability across Africa.
In a recent speech to his parliament, Kagame called his four former allies "useless characters" and had a warning for nations that lend them support: "If you live in a grass-thatched house, you should avoid playing with fire because your own house may catch fire."
Kagame is renowned for his role in helping to end the 1994 genocide during which extremist Hutus killed more than 500,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus. But his democratic credentials have been questioned, as has his ability to heal his nation's ethnic divide.
He was re-elected last year after opposition parties were banned from the vote and some Rwandans said they were forced to cast ballots for him. Freedom House noted a "severe crackdown on opposition politicians, journalists and civil society activists in the run-up to a deeply flawed August 2010 presidential election."
This week Rwandan police said they had asked Interpol member states to arrest the four dissidents and send them home to serve prison sentences. Interpol said Thursday that Rwanda had issued the request on its own, not through the international agency's secretariat.
Former army chief Kayumba Nyamwasa and ex-chief of staff Theogene Rudasingwa were sentenced to 24 years each. Former attorney general Gerald Gahima and intelligence chief Patrick Karegeya were handed 20-year sentences.
"Everybody knows it's a hoax," Karegeya said, accusing Rwanda's president of orchestrating the trial.
Two of the men are in exile in the United States; the other two are in South Africa. Clayson Monyela, spokesman for South Africa's foreign affairs department, said Thursday his government would have no comment on whether the country would comply with Rwanda's extradition request.
Relations between the two countries already have been tense as South Africa investigates a shooting that wounded one of the four ex-aides last year in Johannesburg. At one point, South Africa went so far as to recall its ambassador to Rwanda and it remains unclear whether the diplomat has returned.
South African prosecutors have refused to say whether they believe the Rwandan government was involved in the June attempt on Nyamwasa's life. Rwandan officials vehemently deny any role, while his supporters hold Kagame's government responsible.
The dissidents say they expect South Africa and the U.S. to continue granting them a haven. Their real fear, they say, is not extradition, but an attack by Kagame's agents.
"It's a very real risk," Gahima said.
Authorities in South Africa say the plot against Nyamwasa involved 10 suspects from several African countries. Authorities believe it was masterminded by the one Rwandan citizen among the suspects.
And after the shooting failed to kill Nyamwasa, authorities allege the suspects then plotted to strangle Nyamwasa in his hospital bed. The trial is set to begin in July.
Nyamwasa has kept a low profile since being wounded in the attack. Several months later, Spain announced it was seeking his extradition on genocide charges that he denies.
Nyamwasa and other senior Tutsis are accused of waging an extermination campaign against Hutus in retaliation for the 1994 genocide, killing tens of thousands.
Under Spain's broad human rights laws, a Spanish judge has charged Nyamwasa and 39 other members of the Rwandan military with the mass killings of civilians after they seized power in Rwanda following the genocide.
The dissidents deny their opposition to Kagame springs from personal ambition. And Kagame's former chief of staff said it was fair to ask why Rwandans should now trust former Kagame allies.
"We come to them honestly and admitting honestly some of the things we didn't do that we should have done," Rudasingwa said. "In life, there's always a second chance."
Rudasingwa was Kagame's envoy to the United States in the mid-1990s, where he denounced criticism of Rwanda by international human rights groups.
Even when he knew Rwanda had invaded Congo pursuing Rwandans accused in the genocide, "I used to go to the State Department and say fervently, I would even get angry, that we weren't in the Congo."
He said he began to become disillusioned with Kagame in the late 1990s, but feared arrest or worse. He went on to become Kagame's chief of staff. Rudasingwa left Rwanda in 2004, returned briefly, then left for good in 2005.
Five years later, the four ex-Kagame aides in exile established the Rwanda National Congress, which they say is dedicated to pursuing peaceful political change. They accuse Kagame's government of refusing to embrace democracy and respect human rights, and say that could lead to more violence.
Past Rwandan conflicts have spread throughout the Great Lakes region and sent refugees fleeing across Africa.
Gahima, Rwanda's former attorney general, said the criminal convictions and attempts to extradite them had only strengthened the exiles' resolve to bring about change in their homeland.
But "I don't think we should be under the illusion that Kagame is going to easily give up power," he said. "We have a long and hard road ahead of us."