Rights groups on Friday urged leaders attending the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) this month to pressure Rwanda to release dissidents and improve its grim record on freedom of expression.
The East African country, ruled by President Paul Kagame since the end of the 1994 genocide that killed some 800,000, mostly Tutsis, has often been criticized for rights abuses.
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“We express our grave concerns about the human rights situation in Rwanda as it prepares to host the meeting in June 2022,” 23 organizations, including Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International, said in a joint statement.
Activists have called on the Commonwealth to insist that the Rwandan authorities “immediately drop the charges against and release all those currently detained solely for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression”.
Kigali should also “commit publicly and ensure that civil society and the media, including those in Rwanda, will be allowed to work freely and raise human rights issues without fear of reprisal during and after their participation. at CHOGM,” they added.
The biennial event was originally scheduled for 2020 before being pushed back twice due to the coronavirus outbreak.
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Activists also urged CHOGM participants to pressure Rwanda to allow an international investigation into high-profile cases involving rights abuses, including the death of gospel singer Kizito Mihogo.
His music was banned by Kagame’s government and he was found dead in his cell in February 2020, just days after he was caught fleeing the country.
Police say Mihigo, a Rwandan genocide survivor whose songs angered the government, killed himself by hanging himself from his cell window with sheets.
Asked about the activists’ claims, government spokeswoman Yolande Makolo said on Friday: “Rwanda is a proud member of the Commonwealth family.”
“Rwandans have been working around the clock to ensure preparation for CHOGM, and we look forward to welcoming leaders and delegates to our country,” she told AFP.
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In March last year, HRW expressed concern over a crackdown on people using YouTube or blogs to speak out on sometimes controversial issues in Rwanda.
HRW said at least eight people reporting or commenting on the news, including the impact of strict anti-Covid measures which had hit the poor hard, had been threatened, arrested or prosecuted.
The Commonwealth is made up mainly of former British colonies comprising 54 countries and 2.4 billion people.
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