Spike in violence ahead of Rwanda poll

Former US President Bill Clinton presented Rwanda's leader with a global citizen award last autumn and lauded him for freeing the minds of his people.

Now as an election approaches, critics fear Paul Kagame's government is instead smashing dissent.

A former dissident general was shot, an opposition Rwandan journalist killed and an American lawyer jailed in the run-up to the August presidential vote.

A top opposition political party says some of its members were beaten by police while in detention and that one is missing.

Rwanda's government insists it played no part in either the general being shot or the journalist being killed, and the country's top spokeswoman accused "frustrated" politicians of suggesting that a crackdown is under way.

But human rights groups say the government is ensuring that opposition parties are excluded from the political process.

"It has been extremely worrying for quite some time," said Carina Tertsakian, a researcher at Human Rights Watch who specialises in Rwanda.

"Rwanda is a country where there is not much freedom of expression, but in the months leading up to the August elections we really have seen a further crackdown on any form of opposition, dissent or criticism," she said.

International accounts of Rwanda's 1994 genocide said at least 500,000 ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed. The violence ended when Mr Kagame led a Tutsi-dominated force into the country and he has been in power ever since.

The government tried to reduce the role ethnicity plays in society today, fearing a return to violence. Rwandan authorities have likened their laws against genocide denial to Germany's laws against Holocaust denial, and defend them as necessary for keeping the peace.

The country's most prominent opposition politician, Victoire Ingabire, believes Mr Kagame's government is marginalising ethnic Hutus. Mr Ingabire, who is under house arrest and faces charges of genocide ideology, said that members of her party were "tortured" while in police custody.

"Our country is on the brink of chaos," Ms Ingabire said. "The rising tension, nervousness, repression and the shrinking of the political space call for the postponement of the presidential elections. Otherwise the elections masquerade (parade) only the ruling party and its allied groups while excluding the opposition leaders."

A dissident former Rwandan general, Kayumba Nyamwasa, was shot near his home earlier this month in South Africa by assailants who did not attempt to steal anything.

Opposition journalist Jean-Leonard Rugambage was killed in the Rwandan capital late on Thursday.

The paper Mr Rugambage worked for, Umuvugizi, last week published an article online alleging the Rwandan government was behind the attempted murder of Gen Nyamwasa, an allegation the government denies. The former general, once a close ally of Mr Kagame, had become an increasingly outspoken critic of Rwanda's government.

Louise Mushikiwabo, the minister of Foreign Affairs and the government spokeswoman, said Rwanda does not kill its own people, and that if it has a problem with someone it will take them to court.