A Rwandan military tribunal on Wednesday charged 25 men accused of belonging to a banned armed rebel group with attempting to overthrow the government and conspiring with a foreign power.
The charges against the accused — all allegedly members of the Rwandan National Congress (RNC), an armed militia opposed to President Paul Kagame — carry a jail term of 25 years to life.
“All the suspects are charged with attempting to overthrow the government by use of military force, collaborating with a foreign government with the intent to wage a war, formation and joining a criminal association, and joining illegal armed group,” the three-judge panel said.
A group of 66 African refugees and asylum-seekers have arrived in Kigali from Libya, the UN said, the first in what could be thousands of people being helped to flee the conflict-torn country.
The move follows a pledge by President Paul Kagame in 2017 to offer a “home” to Africans after reports emerged of the torture, sexual violence and forced labour they suffer in Libya.
Earlier this month, Rwanda signed a deal with the African Union (AU) and the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR agreeing to take in African refugees and asylum-seekers stranded in Libya.
The Rwandan government has said it is prepared to accommodate as many as 30,000 evacuees, although the plan is for the programme to unfold in batches of 500 to prevent the country of 12 million from feeling overwhelmed.
“Just landed!” the United Nations refugee agency wrote on its Twitter account as the group landed in the Rwandan capital late Thursday.
The youngest passenger was a two-month-old girl born in Libya to Somali parents.
UNHCR spokesman Babar Baloch told journalists in Geneva Friday that 26 of the evacuees were unaccompanied children.
“One evacuee had not been outside a detention centre for more than four years. All evacuees were either Sudanese, Somali or Eritrean,” he said.
A UN official told AFP Wednesday that a subsequent flight carrying 125 people was planned for “between 10-12 October”.
They will be housed in a transit centre in Rwanda before being resettled elsewhere unless they agree to return to their home countries.
“UNHCR will provide persons evacuated from Libya with shelter, education, food items, basic hygiene products and health care services,” Olivier Kayumba Rugina, permanent secretary at the ministry of emergency management, told AFP.
The new arrivals will be resettled at the Gashora Refugee Transit Centre in Bugesera District, approximately 60 kilometres (37 miles) from Kigali.
The facility was established in 2015 to host Burundians, about 30,000 of whom have transited the country to flee political violence in their homeland.
Baloch said a psychologist, counsellors and other health professionals to aid those “who survived torture, sexual violence and human rights abuses during their time in Libya.”
“The entire group has been granted asylum-seeker status, pending an assessment of their refugee claim by UNHCR,” he said.
In the chaos that followed the fall and killing of former dictator Moamer Kadhafi in a 2011 uprising, Libya became a key transit point for sub-Saharan African migrants seeking to embark on dangerous journeys to Europe.
The UN says some 42,000 refugees are currently in Libya.
Kagame first offered to take in Africans stuck in Libya after a CNN report showed what appeared to be a slave market there.
The issue took on new urgency in July when more than 40 people were killed in an airstrike on a migrant detention centre in the Libyan town of Tajoura.
The UN has been criticised for its handling of a transit mechanism for evacuees from Libya established in 2017 on the other side of the continent, in Niger.
The facilities there have struggled with overcrowding and the slow pace of resettlement.
But UN and Rwandan officials say they have learned from Niger’s experience.
While the influx of migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers to Europe has become a political flashpoint, countries in East Africa are often praised for their openness to those displaced by conflict in the region.
Uganda is host to around 800,000 refugees from war-torn South Sudan while countries in the region host hundreds of thousands of refugees from Burundi, Somalia and elsewhere.
At the end of 2018 the region hosted over four million refugees and asylum-seekers, according to the UNHCR.
Rwanda on Sunday began 100 days of mourning for more than 800,000 people slaughtered in a genocide that shocked the world, a quarter of a century on from the day it began.
President Paul Kagame started off a week of commemoration activities by lighting a remembrance flame at the Kigali Genocide Memorial, where more than 250,000 victims are believed to be buried, mainly from the Tutsi people.
They are only some of those killed by the genocidal Hutu forces, members of the old army and militia forces called the “Interahamwe”, that began their bloody campaign of death on April 7, 1994, the day after the assassination of President Juvenal Habyarimana, a Hutu.
Some were shot; most were beaten or hacked by machetes.
The killings lasted until Kagame, then 36, led the mainly Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) into Kigali on July 4, ending the slaughter and taking control of the devastated country.
Kagame, now 61 and who has been in power ever since is leading the memorial to the dead.
After lighting the flame, accompanied by his wife Jeanette, African Union chief Moussa Faki and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, Kagame is expected to make a speech.
He will speak at the Kigali Convention Centre, a dome-shaped auditorium in the centre of the capital, a modern building emblematic of the regeneration of Rwanda since the dark days of 1994.
Kagame will then preside over a vigil at the country’s main football ground. The Amahoro National Stadium — whose name means “peace” in Rwanda’s Kinyarwanda language — was used by the UN during the genocide to protect thousands of people of the Tutsi minority from being massacred on the streets outside.
In past years, ceremonies have triggered painful flashbacks for some in the audience, with crying, shaking, screaming and fainting amid otherwise quiet vigils.
For many survivors, forgiveness remains difficult when the bodies of their loved ones have not been found and many killers are still free.
A quarter of a century on, the east African nation has recovered economically, but the trauma still casts a dark shadow.
Kagame has kept an authoritarian hold as he steers the small, landlocked East African nation through the economic recovery. Growth in 2018 was a heady 7.2 per cent, according to the African Development Bank (AfDB).
Some 10 leaders are expected to pay their respects, mostly from nations across the continent.
Former colonial ruler Belgium is sending Prime Minister Charles Michel.
French President Emmanuel Macron is not attending but expressed his “solidarity with the Rwandan people and his compassion to the victims and their families” in a statement Sunday.
The statement said Macron would like to make April 7 a “day of commemoration of the genocide” in France, without giving further details.
At the ceremony, France is represented by Herve Berville, a 29-year old Rwandan-born member of parliament in Paris.
Rwanda has accused France of being complicit in the genocide through its support for the Hutu-led government and of helping perpetrators escape.
Paris has consistently denied complicity in the bloodshed, though former president Nicolas Sarkozy in 2010 acknowledged France had made “serious errors of judgement”.
On Friday, Macron appointed an expert panel to investigate France’s actions at the time.
Macron is not the only notable absence; former ally Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni is also not attending, amid accusations by Kigali that Uganda is supporting Rwandan rebels.
Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, has departed Nigeria to join other world leaders and top dignitaries to participate as a Special Guest in the ceremonies marking 25th National Commemoration of the Genocide against the Tutsi holding in Kigali, Rwanda on Sunday.
The VP, according to a statement signed by his Senior Special Assistant on Media & Publicity Laolu Akande, is expected back into the country after the event on Sunday.
Some of the activities lined up for the event include the Kigali Genocide Memorial, the Wreaths laying ceremony and Lighting of the Flame by the President of the Republic of Rwanda and Special Guests.
The Rwandan genocide in 1994 had the Tutsi tribe attacked by the Hutu extremist-led government. In 2003, the United Nations General Assembly officially proclaimed 7 April the International Day of Reflection on the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda.
French President Emmanuel Macron on Friday appointed a panel of experts to investigate France’s actions in Rwanda during the country’s genocide 25 years ago, a subject that has dogged Franco-Rwandan relations since the 1994 massacres.
The commission of eight researchers and historians “will be tasked with consulting all France’s archives relating to the genocide… in order to analyse the role and engagement of France during that period,” the presidency said in a statement.
It will look at the period from 1990 to 1994 to “contribute to a better understanding and knowledge of the genocide of Tutsis,” the statement said.
The findings of the researchers, none of them Rwandaexperts, will be used in material used to teach people in France about the genocide, it added.
Rwanda has accused France of being complicit in the genocide of an estimated 800,000 mostly ethnic Tutsis through its support for the Hutu-led government of the day.
It also accuses the French forces who were stationed in Rwanda under a UN mandate of having helped some of the perpetrators to escape, with some seeking sanctuary in France, which critics say for years dragged its heels on bringing them to justice.
Macron announced Friday that the judicial unit in charge of prosecuting Rwandan genocide suspects would be boosted so that suspects “could be tried in a reasonable amount of time”.
The creation of the commission and announcement of extra legal resources for genocide cases aim to help further mend the ties between Rwanda and France, which the genocide left in tatters.
Paris has consistently denied claims of complicity in the bloodletting.
Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who led the Tutsi rebel force that eventually overthrew the genocidal Hutu regime, broke off ties with France between 2006 and 2009 but relations have improved over the past decade.
Confronting France’s past
Macron had nonetheless caused disappointment among genocide survivors and experts by turning down an invitation to attend this weekend’s commemorations in Rwanda.
Macron’s office cited scheduling issues and announced that Herve Berville, a young MP of Rwandan origin who was orphaned during the genocide and adopted by a French family, would represent France instead.
The 41-year-old president, who came of age after France’s colonial era, has already gone further than his predecessor in lifting the lid on France’s murky past in Africa.
On Friday, he became the first French president to meet with representatives of Ibuka, the biggest association of Rwanda’s genocide survivors.
And last September he acknowledged that France had instigated a system that facilitated torture during Algeria’s 1954-1962 independence war, a conflict that also remains hugely sensitive in France.
He also announced that France would open up its archives on the thousands of civilians and soldiers who went missing during that war.
Franco-Rwandan relations hit their nadir in 2006 after a French judge recommended that Kagame be prosecuted by a UN-backed tribunal over the 1994 killing of Rwanda’s president Juvenal Habyarimana, a moderate Hutu whose death triggered the start of the genocide.
‘Errors of judgement’
The turning point came in 2010 when former president Nicolas Sarkozy acknowledged during a visit to Kigali that France had made “serious errors of judgement” in Rwanda.
While falling short of an apology it was seen as a breakthrough in Rwanda, a former Belgian colony which France jealously defended before the genocideas part of its sphere of influence in Africa.
The relationship hit turbulence again however under Socialist president Francois Hollande, before Macron’s election set the stage for a new chapter.
During a visit to Paris last year Kagame appeared impressed by his French counterpart, later praising him for taking a “fresher”, less paternalistic approach to Africa than his forerunners.
“It’s a change from the neo-colonial positions of the past,” he told Jeune Afrique magazine.
An accident at an eastern Rwanda mine on Monday killed 14 people, including seven women, a local government official said.
“This is an unfortunate event that nobody expected. The accident happened when falling debris at the mining site buried all the 14 people and killed them instantly,” Jean Claude Rwagasana, the official from the Mwulire region told AFP.
He added that rescuers arrived shortly after the incident but could find no survivors. Seven women were among those killed.
The accident took place at a cassiterite mine, a mineral which, along with coltan, is a vital component for the production of phones, digital cameras and electronic products.
Deadly accidents at Rwanda’s mines are not uncommon, with 27 miners killed in 2017, government statistics show.
Last October, eight people were killed and four wounded in a mine collapse in southern Rwanda’s Muhanga district.
Rwanda’s mining board has blamed the industry for the deaths, saying many mines’ underground tunnels lack support and that firms are slow to implement safety standards.
The world organization of French-speaking nations on Friday elected Rwandan Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo as its new head despite her country’s shift to English a decade ago and controversy over its rights record.
Mushikiwabo was elected in a suspense-free vote on the last day of the International Organisation of La Francophonie (OIF) summit in the Armenian capital Yerevan. She will replace Canadian politician Michaelle Jean.
The 57-year-old visited dozens of countries to campaign for support and received the backing of the African Union as well as the crucial support of France.
Ironically Rwanda, a former Belgian colony where French was the lingua franca, switched to English as the language of education in 2008 and joined the Commonwealth a year after.
Her election is a victory for both Rwandan strongman Paul Kagame and French President Emmanuel Macron, who have sought to improve relations between their two nations, long fraught due to Kigali’s accusations of French complicity in the 1994 genocide that killed at least 800,000, mostly Tutsis.
Her candidacy sparked criticism with Rwanda under fire over human rights violations and Kagame’s controversial constitutional changes that allow him to extend his stay in power.
“Rwanda is far from having a political regime that respects individual and political freedoms, while the charter of the Francophonie assigns primary importance to these principles as a core of its fundamental values,” France’s former minister of Cooperation and the Francophonie, Pierre-Andre Wiltzer, told AFP.
“Seeking the leadership of the Francophonie is clearly part of Rwanda’s goal for a greater continental and global role,” said Elissa Jobson who researches the African Union (AU) for the International Crisis Group think tank.
“It’s a significant move given Rwanda’s frosty relations with France, its adoption of English as the country’s main language and its admission to the Commonwealth.”
Established in 1970, the OIF unites the world’s French-speaking countries.
It has 58 members and 26 observers which together account for a population of over 900 million people, including 274 million French speakers.
French is currently the world’s fifth most spoken language after Mandarin Chinese, English, Spanish and Arabic, according to official French estimates.