By Clement Uwiringiyimana
KIGALI (Reuters) - Rwanda's senate on Tuesday unanimously approved a draft constitution to allow President Paul Kagame to seek a third term in office, the head of the senate said, clearing the path for a referendum that is not expected to face much opposition.
Kagame, in power since 2000, won widespread praise for ending a genocide in 1994 of some 800,000 people, most of them Tutsis and moderate Hutus, and for rebuilding the nation.
While praising Rwanda's economic and social development since then, rights groups say the government severely restricts freedom of expression and does not tolerate dissent, charges the government denies.
Kagame is the latest long-serving ruler in Africa to attempt to extend his hold on power. Similar moves have already sparked violence and instability in Burundi and Congo Republic. So far there has been no unrest in Rwanda.
Senate head Bernard Makuza said he expected the changes to be approved in a referendum, adding Kagame, whose current term ends in 2017, could run for another seven-year term and then two five-year terms, possibly keeping him in power until 2034.
"But it all depends on his will," he told reporters after the unanimous vote.
Kagame has not said if he would run again, but has said he was open to persuasion.
The draft amendments to the constitution have already been approved by the lower house.
The Democratic Green Party, Rwanda's only genuine opposition party, which is tiny and has no seats in parliament, tried to block the amendments through legal action, but the Supreme Court rejected its bid, saying it was up to citizens to decide.
Frank Habineza, Democratic Green Party's leader, told Reuters by telephone, that the senate approval would not deter his party from opposing the amendments. "We will continue with our no-change campaign."
Critics accuse Kagame, 57, of trampling on media and political freedoms, a charge officials deny. The government says it cannot be blamed if opponents fail to win at the ballot box.
A date for a referendum has yet to be decided.
In Burundi, President Pierre Nkurunziza's decision in April to run for a third term triggered protests, killings and a failed coup. Opponents said the move violated a deal that ended a civil war there.
In Congo Republic, voters backed a change to allow President Denis Sassou Nguesso to run for a third consecutive term. The opposition had called for a boycott of that vote and numerous protests have ended in violence.
(Reporting by Clement; Uwiringiyimana; Writing by George Obulutsa; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)