NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — A powerful member of the U.S. Congress says he's concerned over attacks against and killings of Rwandan dissidents, and he's urging the State Department to re-evaluate its relations with the country that next month will observe the 20th anniversary of its devastating genocide.
Rep. Edward Royce, the chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs, wrote to Secretary of State John Kerry this week and recounted how one Rwandan dissident was killed in South Africa earlier this year and how another was attacked this month, leading South Africa to expel Rwandan diplomats.
Royce said Rwandan President Paul Kagame has fallen just short of taking credit for the attacks, and he noted that the U.N. rapporteur for country rights on freedom of assembly and association recently found that peaceful public disagreement with Rwanda's government is seen as the "equivalent to criminality."
Attention on Rwanda will increase in coming weeks as the country marks the 20th anniversary of the 1994 genocide next month. World leaders acknowledge that Europe and the U.S. did not do enough to stop the killing spree that took more than 500,000 lives, mostly Tutsis and moderate Hutus. That has led to a long period of generous financial aid and favorable diplomacy with Rwanda.
Critics of Kagame's leadership say his government snuffs out all dissent both opposition politicians and critical journalists.
"Allowing president Kagame's violent rhetoric and the slaying of dissidents abroad to go unchecked will only embolden the regime," Royce wrote in his letter, which was posted on the House website. He added later: "I encourage you to closely reevaluate U.S. engagements with Rwanda and take into account those troubling actions when considering future assistance."
Kagame's remarks about "consequences" for anyone who betrays Rwanda "are a deep concern" to the U.S., a State Department spokeswoman said in January.
Royce's letter sends an "unequivocal message" that is a "long time coming," said J. Peter Pham, the director of the Africa Center at the Washington-based Atlantic Council.
"While no one ignores the extraordinary achievements of Rwanda in the two decades since the genocide and, even granting the necessity for some tough discipline in the period immediately after that horror to pull the nation together and rebuild, it is impossible to overlook what is happening both inside the country and outside," Pham said by email Thursday.
Pham said it was significant that both a Republican leader in Congress and the Democratic-led State Department are expressing concerns.
Though South Africa has not officially confirmed the action, many reports indicate Pretoria, the capital, expelled three Rwandan diplomats this month for their alleged role in an attempted hit on a former Rwandan army chief of staff, Gen. Faustin Kayumba Nyamwasa. The former top aide to Rwanda's president, who is now a critic, survived two other attempts in 2010.
Former Rwandan spymaster Col. Patrick Karegeya was assassinated in a plush Johannesburg hotel in December.
Louise Mushikiwabo, Rwanda's foreign minister, said on Twitter last week that Rwanda expelled six South African diplomats in what she called reciprocal action and concern at South Africa's "harboring dissidents responsible for terrorist attacks in Rwanda," a reference to grenade blasts in Kigali, Rwanda's capital.
"Rwandan fugitives continue to engage in terrorist acts back home. Despite repeated promises from Pretoria, the problem is unresolved," Mushikiwabo wrote.
Royce, the U.S. House leader, said he is aware that Rwanda plays a vital role in international peacekeeping operations, but those contributions should not blind the U.S. to "the regime's attempts to violently close the political space for opposition voices ... The friends of Rwanda must ensure that we do not, once again, miss the warning signs of political dysfunction and repression."