Facing life in jail, the woman who dared to take on Paul Kagame

Stability in Rwanda is based on political repression, opposition leader Victoire Ingabire tells Daniel Howden

Victoire Ingabire had expected to spend this weekend campaigning.

Instead, she will spend it under house arrest in Kigali, preparing her defence for a trial that could end with a life sentence. Ms Ingabire returned to Rwanda in February to contest Monday's presidential election. She had not expected to win against Paul Kagame, the soldier who has run Rwanda since 1994, but she did think she would at least be able to stand against him.

"When I came back the plan was to register my party and participate," she told The Independent in a telephone interview from the Rwandan capital.

But the authorities have stopped that from happening. "I have no freedom, the police follow me wherever I go. I cannot leave Kigali, they have taken away my passport," she said.

As Rwanda goes to the polls on Monday the international community is being asked to look again at a country fêted for its miraculous recovery from a genocide remembered as one of humanity's great collective failures. Sixteen years ago, the world stood by while 800,000 people were butchered in 100 days in what the United Nations says was a planned extermination campaign of one ethnic group, the Tutsis, by ethnic Hutu extremists.

Mr Kagame's Tutsi-led Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) has controlled the country since it invaded and ended the genocide. It has missed few opportunities to remind the rest of the world of their failure to act in 1994.

Ms Ingabire and other dissidents are now warning that the international community is in danger of failing Rwanda once again, with its unquestioning support of a president she says has become a dictator. "I don't understand the attitude of Rwanda's allies and donors," said Ms Ingabire.

"They see the growing tension and they do nothing. We have a big crisis brewing inside the country and this sham election won't resolve it."

The election campaign has been marred by murders, kidnappings, media closures, unexplained grenade attacks and a series of assassinations of Rwandan dissidents and their supporters abroad. Opposition parties without links to the ruling RPF party have been refused registration, their members have been harassed, intimidated and, in several cases, jailed.

There is little doubt Mr Kagame, who has spent £2m during a one-sided campaign, will win by a landslide. The only candidates standing against him are ruling party "stooges", according to critics. Foreign donors – who provide more than half of Rwanda's budget – have been wrongfooted by the apparently sudden instability in what is held up as an African model.

In a region hobbled by endemic graft, Rwanda is the exception. It has far less corruption than its neighbours, according to the recent East Africa corruption index from Transparency International. Its gross domestic product has doubled since 1994 and the president is hailed by outsiders for his "vision" and "dynamism".

However, a report by independent experts on Rwanda's bid to join the Commonwealth said that Mr Kagame had become an expert at manipulating Western guilt over the genocide and was running "an army with a state".

"People say there's stability in Rwanda but this stability is based on repression," said Ms Ingabire. "We need stability based on freedom.

"I don't understand how democratic countries can remain friends with a government that doesn't allow democracy. The democratic UK is supporting a dictatorship."

The President's would-be rival has been charged with genocide denial under a law criminalising those who spread genocide ideology. The law has been condemned by independent experts as a tool for silencing anyone who disagrees with the official account of what happened 16 years ago.

A Hutu, Ms Ingabire lived outside the country for 16 years and worked as an accountant in The Netherlands, where she set up the United Democratic Forces party. She is accused of channelling funds during that time to the FDLR, an armed Hutu group operating in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). She is said to have met FDLR officials in Spain in 2006.

She doesn't deny this, but says the meeting was attended by many groups from the Rwandan diaspora, including officials from the governing RPF.

"This doesn't mean that we collaborate with the FDLR," she said. She's also accused of twice meeting Hutu genocidaires in the DRC capital – this she does deny, insisting she was in Kinshasa to meet government officials.

The Rwandan government has cited a UN report last year that found diaspora members of Ms Ingabire's party had been in phone contact with FDLR military leaders. But it didn't specify the nature of this contact or suggest she herself had made contact.

"I don't have any links to the FDLR," she insisted. "I don't believe in violence and war is not the solution to the problems that face this country."

Her first speeches upon her return were controversial because she asked for an investigation into Tutsi reprisal killings during and after the genocide.

"I agree that there was a genocide by Hutu extremists against the Tutsis, that is the reality. The people who did this need to be jailed. But there were also other crimes against humanity, including the killing of Hutus." The mother of three does not expect a fair trial. A US attorney who came to Kigali to lead her defence was also jailed briefly and accused of genocide denial. She has appealed for an international inquiry into the murder of a journalist critical of the government and the assassination of the deputy leader of Rwanda's Green Party – killings the government now says were carried out by disaffected members of the diaspora. "Rwanda's history is a cycle of violence," said Ms Ingabire. "I understand the [Tutsis'] fear of the Hutus but not all Hutus were killers.

"We have to stop fear among Rwandan people, to make sure no one can lose their life because of their ethnicity or their political beliefs."

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