KIGALI, Rwanda — A prominent Rwandan opposition leader walked free on Saturday after the government approved the early release of more than 2,100 prisoners with little explanation.
Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza’s release surprised many because it is unusual for longtime President Paul Kagame to pardon potential challengers. She quickly urged Kagame to release all other political prisoners.
“The beginning of opening of the political space in Rwanda, I hope so,” she told reporters.
Ingabire, head of the FDU-Inkingi opposition party, was arrested in 2010 and found guilty of conspiracy to undermine the government and denying Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, charges that she denied. She was sentenced to 15 years.
Human Rights Watch called the charges politically motivated and linked to her criticism of the government ahead of the 2010 presidential election.
A smiling Ingabire thanked the president for her release, saying it means the government has found it can work together with Rwandans of different political views.
When asked about her political future, she said she would announce next steps in the coming days.
Rwanda’s government has long been accused by rights groups of suppressing the opposition and having a justice system that lacks independence, which it has denied.
“When prisoners are filing forms requesting a presidential pardon, prisoners charged with genocide denial and conspiracy against the government are not allowed to fill such forms,” a prison official told The Associated Press. The official spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to speak on behalf of the prison.
Some 800,000 people, mostly ethnic Tutsis, were killed by Hutu extremists during the Rwandan genocide, according to the United Nations.
Some objected to Ingabire’s release. “Anyone who peddles … ethnic politics must be told in no uncertain terms that it won’t be tolerated. Her release doesn’t do that!” Christopher Kayumba, a lecturer at the school of journalism at the National University of Rwanda, said in a Twitter post.
Still detained in Rwanda is Diane Rwigara, who tried to challenge Kagame in last year’s election but was disqualified over allegations that she forged some signatures on her nomination papers. She denied it. She later was charged with inciting insurrection.
Critics have said Rwanda’s government has been under pressure over Rwigara’s arrest and that Ingabire’s release was meant to ease it.
In recently concluded parliamentary elections, two opposition parties won two seats each for the first time, a sign that the government could be trying to carry out reforms.
Anne Rwigara, Diane’s sister, said Ingabire’s release should not blind those who have advocated for free speech and rights for every Rwandan.
“The momentum to fight for rights for every citizen … must continue,” she told the AP.