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Rwanda's Paul Kagame Center of Controversial Election

A long-standing ally of successive U.S. governments, Rwandan President Paul Kagame is finding himself in the middle of a controversial election campaign, marked by media repression, jailings of opposition leaders, threats of war, attempted assassinations and several killings of political opponents.

The United Nations and U.S.-based Human Rights Watch have called for a full investigation into one of the recent killings, the near decapitation of an opposition leader.

One of those jailed in the run-up to the August 9 presidential vote was American lawyer Peter Erlinder. He had gone to Rwanda to defend an opposition leader jailed for allegedly disagreeing with the government's official version of the 1994 genocide. He was then also jailed for three weeks on a charge of what Rwandan authorities call genocide ideology.

Erlinder said he would have never gone to Rwanda if he had known what the political climate was like.

"I thought with the election coming up and with the many nice things that the United States government has said about the Rwandan government recently and the progress that it has made ... Unfortunately what is happening now raises serious questions about whether that progress was real or whether we really do have a military dictatorship that is being supported by our government. It raises a lot of very difficult questions," Erlinder said.

Following the arrest of Erlinder, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she understood the anxiety of Rwanda's leadership over what they view as genocide denial, but she urged Rwanda not to undermine its remarkable progress by beginning to move away from positive actions.

Analyst Steve McDonald, with the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, recently returned from Rwanda and was also disturbed by what he experienced.

"The fear is palpable, the nervousness, the feeling that there is no freedom of speech and association and gathering in the society and I think this could be disastrous," he said.

He says he believes President Kagame is refusing post-genocide reconciliation as a means to exert his authority. But McDonald is not surprised he has received praise and many awards in the United States, including the Clinton Global Citizen Award last year, from former President Bill Clinton.

"Kagame is an extremely energetic, extremely intelligent man who has fully taken advantage of many of the hot buttons that he knows the West cares about, that is economic progress, that is environmental concern, that is furthering information technology," Mcdonald said. "He is taking the lead on the international stage that originally put him among these new African leaders during the Clinton administration, including Meles Zenawi in Ethiopia, and [Yoweri] Museveni in Uganda."

He says since then he believes these leaders have failed their countries in terms of democracy and human rights.

President Kagame himself has denied his government has been behind any of the killings.

"Why would government be that stupid? I never knew I would be in a government that would be seen as that stupid, that would kill journalists, opposition leaders, one after another, you kill and you kill, as if there is anything to gain from it," said Kagame.

He won the last presidential election in 2003 with more than 95 percent of the vote, but there has been growing dissension among his former political allies. The former Rwandan intelligence chief, Patrick Karegeya, was quoted Monday as saying "dictators like Mr. Kagame do not step down, but can only be brought down."

Africa advocacy groups holding a protest conference Tuesday in Washington say foreign election observers in Rwanda will be a waste of money.

Earlier this year, the senior U.S. diplomat for Africa, Johnnie Carson, said the political environment in Rwanda was in his words "riddled by a series of worrying actions."

A spokeswoman for Rwanda's government said that was what she called "an out-of-Rwanda reading of the situation in Rwanda, with added election hype."