Rwanda:The minister, the journo and the ladies Sex and power in Rwanda

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The minister, the journo and the ladies Sex and power in Rwanda

A witness faces the president (with umbrella) of a gacaca court session during a hearing in relation with the 1994 Rwandan genocide. The gacaca courts take their inspiration from old village tribunals traditionally used to settle disputes.  |   Image: © Thomas Lohnes/AFP/Getty Images

It was not the kind of story that would normally have concerned Jean Bosco Gasasira, a newspaper editor and one of the handful of respected investigative journalists in Rwanda. A sex scandal involving a man who had lured three married women into affairs with the false promise that he would later marry them. But there was more to it than that.

The man in question was the third ranking prosecutor in Rwanda and head of the Genocide Fugitive Tracking Unit, Jean Bosco Mutangana. And he had, in the view of Mr Gasasira, who edits a Kinyarwanda-language newspaper, used his office to silence another journalist who had learnt about the scandal.

The details of this story are complex but it began with the arrest on extortion charges of the editor of another Kinyarwanda paper, Assumani Niyonambaza. Mr Gasasira felt there was "something that didn't smell right" about the arrest of his colleague, in particular the anonymity given to his accusers.

The allegations against Mr Mutungana were widely known, though no-one had yet dared to publish them. They were certainly explosive: it is claimed that not only did Mr Mutungana begin affairs with three women but that he persuaded them to get divorced on the promise of marrying them and meanwhile harassed or threatened their husbands. Mr Niyonambaza was about to break that silence by printing them in his paper but was warned off doing so and then arrested.

It is at this point that Mr Gasasira became involved by writing a full account both of the alleged affairs and of the attempts to stop them being reported. This appeared in his newspaper, Umuvugizi, in July last year. Mr Gasasira says he did not write the story to expose a sex scandal but to rescue a fellow journalist who he believed was innocent and being framed.

Later in the month, the minister of information used a press conference to state that the days of Umuvugizi "were numbered", and the following day Mr Gasasira was summoned by police for several hours of hostile questioning. He subsequently noticed he was being followed at all times by armed, plain-clothes security agents and that his house was being watched day and night.

President Paul Kagame gives a speech during the official opening of the new Gacaca courts 24 June 2004 in Kigali.  |   Image: © Gianluigi Guercia/AFP/Getty Images

Then on 18 August, without warning, he was bundled into a pickup by the unidentified agents and taken first to a police station, then to a prosecutor's office. There he was charged with criminal defamation, invasion of privacy and slander and told to make a statement, which he refused to do in the absence of a lawyer. He was given 24 hours to get representation and return.

"I couldn't get a lawyer," he says. "Any Rwandan lawyer I approached was fearing to take the case because the prosecutor was very sensitive. I was told it was like a case against the state and they were fearing to lose their jobs."

However, the matter drew the attention of international groups, including Human Rights Watch (HRW). Leslie Haskell, a researcher with HRW, decided to help the accused as she felt the case was politically motivated, and the Media Legal Defence Initiative (MLDI) was approached to help the editor find and pay for a lawyer.

Initially none of the local lawyers wanted the case, says MLDI's Peter Noorlander, but then they found Claudine Gasarabwe, who took it on with the support of three other lawyers, also funded by MLDI. "She had taken cases against the prosecutor before and wasn't afraid."

Among a number of clear instances of unfairness, the defence was denied the right to call witnesses and the prosecutor was given a closed-doors meeting with the judge.

Despite the seriousness of the charges, which potentially carried a two-year prison term, Ms Gasarabwe said it was clear immediately that this was not to be a free trial. Among a number of clear instances of unfairness, the defence was denied the right to call witnesses and the prosecutor was given a closed-door meeting with the judge.

Mr Gasasira's lawyers eventually walked out of the proceedings in September and despite protests, the judge allowed the prosecution to make its closing arguments in the absence of anyone to do the same for the defence. Mr Gasasira was convicted of criminal defamation and invasion of privacy but acquitted of slander. He avoided a prison term but was slapped with a fine of RF2.4 million (about $4,000).

Mr Gasasira has appealed this decision and says he was told the only reason he escaped a prison term was that Rwanda was poised to be accepted into the Commonwealth of Nations and wanted to avoid drawing attention to the case. Indeed, the case revealed just the kind of abuses of basic freedoms that led many non-governmental organisations to appeal, unsuccessfully, to the Commonwealth heads of government to keep Rwanda out.

Mr Gasasira is no stranger to intimidation. In February 2007 he was brutally assaulted in the capital Kigali by three unidentified men armed with iron bars. The attack, which put him in a coma and left him with permanent health problems, followed articles in Umuvugizi that were critical of the ruling political party, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF).

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