By Jenny Clover
KIGALI (Reuters) - Rwanda's track record of prosecuting politicians who criticize President Paul Kagame's government sends a chilling a message to opposition figures and rights campaigners, a U.N. Special Rapporteur said on Monday.
Kagame, a rebel fighter-turned-statesman, has won plaudits for Rwanda's economic transformation since the 1994 genocide and for deploying peacekeepers to Africa's conflicts.
But his opponents and rights groups accuse him of trampling political and media freedoms, something the government denies.
Special Rapporteur Maina Kiai said that politicians who rejected what he called Kagame's 'consensus politics' ran into legal trouble, often facing charges of downplaying the genocide and sectarianism. Others who quit the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front party often faced corruption charges.
"In all such cases, these politicians are accused of violence or having links with violent groups," Kiai told reporters at the end on an eight-day trip at Rwanda's invitation.
"This sends a chilling and unacceptable message that peaceful public disagreement with the government is equivalent to criminality," said Kiai, a Kenyan who is Special Rapporteur on rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association.
Two government spokeswomen could not be reached for comment.
The United States said 10 days ago that it was deeply worried about threats made by Kagame about political opponents after one of his exiled critics was found murdered in a hotel room in South Africa.
Kagame and his administration flatly deny any involvement in the death of Patrick Karegeya, whose body, apparently strangled after a meeting with a mysterious business associate, was found in a posh Johannesburg hotel on New Year's Day.
Kiai applauded the leaps Rwanda has made developing infrastructure and ensuring stability in the two decades since ethnic Hutu militias massacred 800,000 ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus in just three months during the genocide.
But he said the political opposition needed to be able to operate without fear.
In December, Rwanda's supreme court extended the jail term of opposition politician Victoire Ingabire to 15 years from eight after she sought to overturn her initial conviction for trying to undermine the state and minimizing the 1994 genocide.
"The legitimate combat against terrorism, and other security considerations, should not be used as a bogeyman to restrict the right to freely associate," Kiai said.
(Writing by Richard Lough, editing by Alister Doyle)