Rwanda's democratic credentials under fire

Host of UN environment event accused of clamping down on its Green party

Rwanda's democratic credentials have been questioned amid evidence that authorities are blocking efforts by the country's Green Party to contest this year's elections. The new Greens have been repeatedly thwarted in their attempts to register the party, their meetings have been violently broken up or blocked by police and their leader has had anonymous death threats.

The central African nation has won international praise for its green record and is the host of this year's UN World Environment Day. "[But] through police harassment and intimidation they are stopping us registering the party which is a legal requirement for taking part in the elections," said party leader Frank Habineza. The politician, formerly an official with the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front, has also had a series of death threats, culminating in a recent front page in the newspaper, Umeseso, headlined, "Frank Habineza to be killed in sixty days". The report which cited anonymous sources claimed security agents would target the politician.

"The government dismisses what is written in Umeseso but then it tends to come true," said Mr Habineza. "I am scared but I still believe a government should protect its citizens. I am not a criminal; I just have different ideas."

In February, at a hotel in the capital, Kigali, the party leader was threatened by an individual claiming to speak for security forces. Two attempts to stage a party conference, a first step to registering the Democratic Green Party, have also been stopped by police. Repeated attempts to contact Rwandan authorities for a response to the threats and police actions were unsuccessful.

There are also widespread reports of intimidation and harassment of opposition parties as the country, which has been ruled by the same party for 15 years, gears up for the presidential vote expected in August. Human Rights Watch says all three opposition groups trying to contest the election have faced serious intimidation and bureaucratic blocks.

"The Rwandan government already tightly controls political space," said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director for the US-based rights group. "These incidents will further undermine democracy by discouraging any meaningful opposition in the elections."

A day after the February threats against Mr Habineza, a leading member of another opposition group, United Democratic Forces, was beaten by a mob in front of a local government office. The attack appeared to have been well co-ordinated, said HRW. Joseph Ntawangundi said he was attacked by youths who punched him, kicked and scratched him, threw him into the air, and ripped his clothes.

And President Paul Kagame has openly warned his leading rival Victoire Ingabire, leader of the UDF, that she could face prosecution under Rwanda's controversial "genocide ideology" laws. The legislation is meant to guard against the ethnic divisions that led to the 1994 genocide, but rights lawyers say they have been used to silence critics.