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Rwandan Opposition Leader Withdraws From Trial

Victoire Ingabire, left, outspoken critic of Rwandan President Paul Kagame, on trial, Kigali, Sept. 2011 (file photo).

Victoire Ingabire, left, outspoken critic of Rwandan President Paul Kagame, on trial, Kigali, Sept. 2011 (file photo).

Jailed Rwandan opposition leader Victoire Ingabire, charged with terrorism and denying the 1994 Rwanda genocide, withdrew from her trial in dramatic fashion this week saying she could not “carry on” with her case. Ingabire told the court her trust in the judiciary had “waned” and that she and her lawyers would no longer report to the trial.

Victoire Ingabire appeared in court Wednesday in Kigali for the ruling on how her trial would proceed after her announced boycott, but said she would not be back. The court ruled she would not be forced to attend proceedings and that she would not have a special lawyer appointed to stand in her place.

Ingabire’s withdrawal came on the heels of a witness who testified in her favor but who says officials intimidated him after his testimony.

Last Wednesday, the court called a former Rwandan rebel spokesman, Michel Habimana-currently serving a life sentence in Rwandan prison for genocide related crimes. Habimana’s statements contradicted much of the prosecution’s case. But after he gave his testimony, Habimana was questioned by authorities outside of the court about notes found in his cell relating to his testimony. That has brought fresh criticism from human rights activists who say Rwanda’s judiciary lacks fairness and independence.

Rwanda’s general prosecutor, Martin Ngoga, initially denied that the witness had been questioned outside of court.

“He was not interrogated," said Ngoga. "There was no interrogation outside the courtroom by the way. That’s it.”

But today Ngoga told reporters that the witness was, in fact, questioned outside of the court but he said that questioning was justified.

“He was searched by the prison authority and a statement was taken because that is mandatory," he said. "Every time you do a search, you do a statement to confirm on record what is being seized so that the next day someone doesn’t come and say you took more than this.”

Carina Tertsakian of Human Rights Watch is a vocal critic of Rwanda’s judiciary and of the treatment given to Habimana.

“There are concerns about two incidents in particular," said Tertsakian. "One is the sudden search of his prison cell apparently on the orders of the prosecution, in which all these papers were seized, the notes of the statement he would make in court. And the second aspect, which seems also very concerning, is that this same witness was questioned in the prison - not in the court but in the prison - by the prison director and another official in the absence of any lawyer and in parallel with the court proceedings.”

On Tuesday, lawyers for a genocide suspect being held at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) in Arusha, Tanzania, Jean-Bosco Uwinkindi, filed a motion based on events in the Ingabire trial to prevent his transfer. But Ngoga says that motion raised questions.

“In Uwinkindi, this defendant - and through his lawyers - they have always maintained there is no independence of the judiciary in Rwanda in Arusha," he said. "But this lawyer goes to Arusha and says there is no independence of the judiciary and he comes to Rwanda to practice before the same judiciary he says is not independent. So he’s British and he knows there’s a British saying, ‘You can’t have your cake and eat it.”

The British lawyer Ngoga referred to, Iain Edwards, says he was willing to give the Rwandan courts a chance but was disappointed with the results.

“I was sincerely hoping, sincerely wishing that the Rwandan judiciary would prove itself to be independent," said Edwards. "Certainly the position of my client, Victoire Ingabire, is that the Rwanda judiciary has definitely not proved itself to be independent and I expect that it’s a question that’s going to be raised in future cases relating to extraditions from other countries in Europe, in the U.S. and Canada and so on.”

Jean-Bosco Uwinkindi will arrive in Rwanda Thursday unless the court blocks his transfer. He would be the first genocide suspect transferred from the ICTR to Rwanda.