In Rwanda, publication of a letter draws a prison term

New York, April 20, 2007–A court in the capital, Kigali, today sentenced Agnès Nkusi-Uwimana, director of the bi-monthly journal Umurabyo, to a year in prison on charges linked to the publication of a reader’s letter critical of the government, according to local journalists and press freedom group Journaliste en Danger. Nkusi-Uwimana has been jailed since January 12 on the charges.

Convicted of divisionism, sectarianism, and libel, Nkusi-Uwimana was also ordered to pay damages of 400,000 Rwandan francs (US$760), according to the same sources. She had pleaded guilty to the charges in exchange for a reduction in the five-year sentence sought by the state prosecutor. Nkusi-Uwimana did not have a defense lawyer present in court, but she planned to file an appeal, local journalists told CPJ.

“It is completely unacceptable that Agnès Nkusi-Uwimana should spend a year behind bars for publishing a reader’s letter,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “Her conviction is another troubling example of the authorities’ use of charges of sectarianism and criminal libel to silence crucial journalism. This must stop.”

The charges stemmed from an unsigned letter published on January 1 that compared ethnic killings during President Paul Kagame’s Tutsi-dominated administration to those of the previous Hutu regime, according to CPJ research.

Kagame’s regime has continually used accusations of “divisionism” and “sectarianism” to silence critics, including those in the media. In a statement released last month, the Rwandan League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights stated that “some independent newspapers like Umuco and Rushyashya are being accused of an ideology of genocide and of separatism, without relevant evidence, in a scheme to muzzle them,” according to the pro-government daily The New Times.