Rwanda rejects British legislators' call to free officers

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KIGALI, Rwanda (AP) — Rwanda's government has protested a call by six British legislators for President Paul Kagame to free high-ranking army officers, saying the two were convicted of serious crimes.

Rwanda's Military High Court sentenced Col. Tom Byabagamba and retired Brig. Gen. Frank Rusagara, in 2016 to 21 and 20 years in prison, respectively. Charges against them included inciting insurrection and tarnishing the government's image. Throughout the trial, the two maintained their innocence. They were arrested in 2014.

Rusagara held several senior positions in the Rwandan Defense Forces, including secretary general of the Defense Ministry and military attaché in the Rwandan High Commission in the United Kingdom, while Byabagamba, was the former head of the presidential guard.

During the trial, the prosecution had also accused them of criticizing Kagame's government, alleging the two officers had claimed the government was involved in assassinating opponents. Human rights groups criticized the trial.

"The Rwandan authorities have the right to prosecute genuine security offenses, but this case is a clear use of criminal proceedings to silence criticism of government actions or policy," said Human Rights Watch, shortly after the court announced the sentence.

The two men are said to be in failing health and family members have said they hope the government will show mercy ahead of a Commonwealth summit to be held in Rwanda next year.

In the letter to Kagame dated November 4, the British members of parliament expressed deep concern over the continued detention of Byabagamba and Rusagara.

"We commend Rwanda's progress over the last three decades, particularly the strides it has made in creating a more inclusive society that has drawn in marginalized populations. However, we are troubled that Rwanda has imposed disproportionate sentences on individuals who are suffering from serious health issues in poor prison conditions," the legislators wrote.

They said humanitarian factors call for Byabagamba and Rusagara's release. They said Rusagara suffers from an enlarged prostate and arthritis while Byabagama has two artificial discs, after having major surgery on his back.

In response to this demand, Rwanda justice minister Johnson Busingye said the are limited circumstances in which the government can intervene in criminal cases. He said the cases of the two men are presently on appeal.

"It would be inappropriate for the Executive to comment on any pending case, seek to influence the outcome or intervene as proposed in your letter," the minister said.

The British legislators who wrote to Kagame include Baroness D'Souza, Lord Steel, Baroness Northover, Matthew Offord, Ivan Lewis and Rosie Duffield.

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