Short leaps to defence of Rwanda

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Clare Short has backed the Rwandan government, which has been criticised for human rights abuses. The British Cabinet minister said the country was the victim of genocide. Amelia French reports from Kigali.

Ms Short dismissed accusations that prisoners in Rwanda are held in appallingly overcrowded conditions, and claims of human rights abuses.

"You can't just denounce the fact that there's lots of people in prison. They're charged with genocide," Ms Short said. She was speaking during a visit yesterday to Gikondo prison, just outside the Rwandan capital, Kigali.

More than 120,000 people are believed to be held in prisons and makeshift jails awaiting trial for the 1994 genocide in which members of the country's Hutu majority killed 800,000 Tutsis and Hutu opponents to the former regime. In some jails, prisoners barely have room to move.

"We have to give support that will help them to get people to trial, and other ways of helping to rebuild the country, but pretending that genocide didn't happen and certainly turning on the government of Rwanda because there are too many people in prison is the international community once again not accepting its responsibilities. Denouncing Rwanda is a disgrace," she said. She said the whole international community was guilty of what happened in Rwanda.

During her tour, Ms Short spoke briefly to prisoners. Perched on raised shelves to create more space, inmates looked at the visitors with weary curiosity.

Ms Short questioned a gynaecologist in charge of Aids patients. Dr Cyridion Ukulikiyimfura was wearing the regulation pink prison uniform. "So you're accused of being involved in the genocide? A doctor?" she said. He nodded.

"So let me ask you - you're an educated man - why did the genocide happen in Rwanda?" she asked.

"It was bad education for the population since the Sixties. There were deep divisions within the society," Dr Ukulikiyimfura said. "It's not your size or the shape of your nose or whatever that allows to divide ourselves. We have the same language and the same culture."

Ms Short dismissed recent reports criticising the Rwandan army for killing unarmed civilians during operations against Hutu rebels in north-west Rwanda.

A recent report by Amnesty International alleged that 6,000 people, most of them unarmed civilians, were killed in Rwanda between January and August this year, mainly by the Rwandan army.

Ms Short was on the second of a two-day visit to Rwanda. The money pledged to Rwanda is to be spent on education, justice and revenue collection.