Two convicted journalists of the weekly local tabloid, Umurabyo, yesterday, launched their bid to reverse last year’s verdicts by the High Court.
Chief Justice Sam Rugege is presiding over the case, which has attracted many foreign journalists and diplomats.
Agnes Nkusi Uwimana, the editor of the controversial tabloid, and reporter Saidath Mukakibibi, were, in February 2011, sentenced to 17 years and seven years in jail, respectively, after they were found guilty of committing several criminal offences.
Uwimana was also fined Rwf 250,000 after she was found guilty of threatening state security by publishing material with an aim to incite public disorder and creating ethnic divisions.
Mukakibibi, on the other hand, was found guilty of threatening state security and defaming the person of the Head of State.
Uwimana and Mukakibibi maintained they were wrongly sentenced by the High Court even after explaining that their publications were within the confines of the law and were merely practicing their rights to freedom of speech and expression as journalists.
While they admit breaching certain sections of the law, they say they had no motive to incite the masses against the government or the country’s leadership, let alone undermine government programmes.
Uwimana told the court that during the High Court hearing, she was compared to the likes of Hassan Ngeze, whose publications incited the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi, insisting that the comparison was harsh since her articles did not cause any violence.
“I don’t think it was fair to compare me with the likes of Ngeze, whose publications incited the Genocide. I am also asking for leniency because I am a widow and a single mother with a child to look after, and all I wrote was for the sake of our survival.”
“I also confided in court that my health was not in good shape,” Uwimana said, adding that she lives with the virus that causes HIV/Aids.
Mukakibibi, on the other hand, told court that her articles were based on her analysis of the current government, which she compared with the past regimes, concluding that the current leadership is worse off.
She said that as a journalist she was entitled to her opinion, which was based on affairs of the state at the time, but never did so with a motive of inciting masses or creating ethnic divisions.
The opening day was dominated by deliberations on whether the Supreme Court should accept the request of three more lawyers representing various organisations to be part of the defence team as “friends of court” (Amicus Curiae).
The Rwandan judicial procedures do not allow that provision but the defence gave several jurisprudences where the “friends of court” cases have been used in the past.
Following consultations, the judges decided to postpone the case until February 8 or 20, to allow court time to decide on the possibility of allowing the lawyers or not, which would set a new precedent.
However, two British defence lawyers requested Justice Rugege to proceed with the case as further delays would make it impossible for them to take part in the case, yet they prepared and travelled from the UK to present their case, a request which was granted.
The defence team argued that the sentences handed to the two female journalists were harsh and sent a wrong message to the international community on the country’s record on freedoms of speech and expression.
Chief Justice Rugege directed defence lawyers to restrict themselves to the law, arguing that courts cannot ignore the law to impress the international community.
He told the defence team that while they argue that the sentences were harsh, they should not ignore the grounds for which the High Court reached the decisions.
The case resumes today with prosecution taking the floor.