CPJ opposes prison terms for 2 Rwandan journalists

New York, January 7, 2011–The Committee to Protect Journalists opposes prosecution demands for lengthy prison sentences for the editor and deputy editor of the independent weekly Umurabyo. State Prosecutor Agustin Nkusi requested a 33-year prison sentence for Editor Agnès Uwimana, at left, and 12 years for her deputy, Saidati Mukakibibi, at a High Court hearing on Thursday in the capital, Kigali.

The two, arrested in July 2010, face charges of incitement to violence, genocide denial, and insulting the head of state in connection with several opinion pieces published in mid-2010, according to news reports.

Some of the columns in contention claimed there were growing divisions within the army and that Hutus victims of the 1994 Rwandan genocide deserve justice. One of the columns was accompanied by a photo of President Paul Kagame with a Nazi swastika superimposed in the background. The arrests took place one month ahead of the 2010 presidential elections.

“Using sweeping laws on genocide denial, the prosecutor wants to silence two journalists for opinion pieces,” said CPJ East Africa Correspondent Tom Rhodes. “We call on the High Court to dismiss these harsh criminal charges against Agnès Uwimana and Saidati Mukakibibi.”

A verdict is expected in February, defense lawyer Nsabayezu Evariste told CPJ.

The Kinyarwanda-language weekly, which ceased publication after the arrests, came to prominence after two other private weeklies, Umuseso and Umuvugizi, were banned by the Media High Council, local journalists said. While sometimes sensational, Umurabyo provided in-depth coverage on topics such as the June 2010 murder of Umuvugizi Deputy Editor Jean-Léonard Rugambage and allegations of exorbitant government spending on luxury jets, according to local journalists.

Uwimana had been imprisoned in 2007 on charges of ethnic divisionism and libel after she published a commentary on ethnic violence in Rwanda, according to CPJ research.