(Nairobi) – Presidential elections in Rwanda on August 4, 2017, took place in a context of very limited free speech or open political space, Human Rights Watch said today, as President Paul Kagame is sworn in for a seven-year term. Human Rights Watch released a chronology of violations of the right to freedom of expression, association, and assembly in Rwanda between the country’s December 2015 referendum – allowing the president to run for a third term – and the election, which Kagame won with a reported 98.79 percent of the vote.

“Kagame’s landslide win came as no surprise in a context in which Rwandans who have dared raise their voices or challenge the status quo have been arrested, forcibly disappeared, or killed, independent media have been muzzled, and intimidation has silenced groups working on civil rights or free speech,” said Ida Sawyer, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Yet the Rwandan authorities took no chances with the presidential vote, as repression continued in recent months despite the weak prospects for any opposition candidate.”

A polling staff member displays a ballot at a polling center in Kigali, Rwanda, August 4, 2017.
EXPAND A polling staff member displays a ballot at a polling center in Kigali, Rwanda, August 4, 2017. © 2017 Jean Bizimana/Reuters
In the days following the vote, Human Rights Watch spoke with local activists and private citizens who spoke of intimidation and irregularities in both the lead-up to the election and during the voting. In Rutsiro district, in Western Province, donations to the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) were mandatory. “Nobody could escape this order,” said one voter. “It was organized through the National Electoral Commission.”

Another voter, also from Rutsiro, said that he was forced to vote in the presence of a National Electoral Commission official. “After verifying my name on the voting list, I was told to vote then and there in front of him,” the voter said. “It was easy to see who I was voting for on the ballot, so it was impossible for me to vote for anyone besides Kagame.”

A person monitoring the vote in Nyamagabe District, in the south, said he saw voting officials sign ballots for at least 200 people who did not show up to vote. All the votes went to the RPF.

On August 5, the US State Department released a statement citing “irregularities observed during voting.” On August 6, the European Union released a statement supporting the peaceful elections but adding: “in view of future elections, the EU expects further efforts to increase the inclusiveness and transparency of the process, in particular as regards the registration of the candidates, the tabulation of results and other prerequisites for achieving a level playing field.”

Three candidates contested the elections: Kagame (Rwandan Patriotic Front, RPF); Frank Habineza (Democratic Green Party of Rwanda, DGPR); and an independent candidate, Philippe Mpayimana. Both Habineza and Mpayimana said they experienced harassment, threats, and intimidation after announcing their candidacy. Neither posed a serious challenge to President Kagame. Mpayimana won 0.73 percent of the vote and Habineza won 0.48 percent.

A person who monitored the campaign in Musanze, Burera, and Rulindo districts, in the Northern Province, said that local security forces went door-to-door in various neighborhoods before the vote, telling people not to participate in Habineza’s campaign rallies. “It was too much of a risk for most people to go to the rally and listen to what [Habineza] had to say,” he said, “so only a few people dared to go.”

Two other would-be independent candidates, Diana Rwigara and Gilbert Mwenedata, said that they had fulfilled eligibility requirements of 600 signatures supporting their candidacy, including 12 from each of the 30 districts. But the National Electoral Commission rejected their efforts to register, claiming that many of the signatures were invalid. Another potential candidate, Thomas Nahimana, a Catholic prelate turned politician, was denied access to Rwanda in January when he tried to enter from France, where he now lives.

On August 3, Rwigara told the BBC Kinyarwanda service, which is banned in Rwanda, that five of her supporters had been arrested for wearing t-shirts supporting her political campaign. The supporters were later released.

Kagame himself boasted that the election results were already known during a campaign rally in Ruhango district, in Southern Province, in mid-July. “I am very pleased because we are already aware of the results of the elections,” he said. “Anyone who says that results are not known is lying. The results were already known since December 2015.”

On December 18, 2015, Rwandans overwhelmingly approved amendments to the constitution to allow Kagame to run again – a third term had not been permitted under the previous constitution. According to the official results, 98.3 percent of the 98 percent of registered voters who participated in the referendum voted in favor of the amendments.

The referendum followed attacks on suspected political and military opponents in the years since the RPF came to power in 1994, including murders both inside and outside of Rwanda.

In the period between the referendum and the August 2017 presidential elections, Human Rights Watch documented an ongoing pattern of harassment, arrests, and detention of opposition party leaders and supporters, activists, and journalists. Several were forcibly disappeared or prosecuted after making comments critical of the current government or ruling party.

Human Rights Watch has documented that poor people, critics of government decisions regarding land disputes, and suspected petty criminals have been arbitrarily arrested, held in illegal detention centers, and in some cases executed, forcibly disappeared, tortured, or mistreated. These tactics ensure that citizens are afraid to speak out against the government.

The revised constitution, among other things, reduces presidential terms to five years, renewable only once, after a transitional seven-year term starting in 2017. It also reset the clock on presidential terms already served. It allowed Kagame to run for a third seven-year term in 2017 and will allow him to run for two five-year terms, in 2024 and 2029, opening the possibility of extending his rule until 2034.

The process was initiated by a series of petitions in which more than 3.78 million people claimed to support extending Kagame’s stay in office. Parliament, after national consultations, unanimously approved the amendments. The opposition DGPR lost a case before the Supreme Court challenging the proposal, and was the only registered political party to oppose the constitutional amendments.

“Rwanda’s donors and partners should take a stronger stance against the government’s many measures to clamp down on free expression and quash dissent, and make clear that there will be consequences,” Sawyer said. “While the country has made remarkable economic and development progress since the genocide that devastated the country in 1994, it should not come at the cost of the Rwandan people’s most fundamental freedoms.”

Chronology of Rwanda’s Closing Space
The following charts several key political developments between January 2016 and August 2017, including many threats to and violations of the rights to freedom of expression, association, and assembly in Rwanda leading up to presidential elections on August 4, 2017. The list is not exhaustive. Human Rights Watch documented several other cases that are not included because the people concerned feared repercussions if their situation is publicized.