Diane Rwigara, a Rwandan activist and fierce critic of president Paul Kagame, was acquitted on Thursday of charges of inciting insurrection against the state and forgery.
The 37-year-old opposition leader, who spent more than a year in prison before she was released on bail last month, welcomed the ruling but said she will continue to push for political reform in the central African state.
“I am very happy with the verdict” Ms Rwigara said by phone from the Rwandan capital Kigali. “I will continue with what I started.”
Ms Rwigara rose to prominence last year when she sought to run against Mr Kagame in the August presidential election. The electoral commission rejected her application, saying that of the 1,100 signatures of support she submitted only half were valid and she was subsequently arrested for forgery. Six hundred signatures are needed to become a candidate.
Shortly after she was blocked from running, Ms Rwigara co-founded the People’s Salvation Movement, an organisation seeking to promote people’s rights.
In power since 2000, Mr Kagame changed the constitution in 2015 by referendum to allow him to remain president until 2034. Mr Kagame has been praised for transforming the central African nation from a failed state haunted by the memory of a genocide into a thriving economy, but he has done so at the expense of open political competition.
Several critics who have gone into exile have died in mysterious circumstances and dozens of opposition figures have been arrested. In 2017, only two candidates were approved to run against Mr Kagame, who won 98.7 per cent of the vote.
The ruling, in which Ms Rwigara’s mother Adeline was also acquitted, followed the early release in September of more than 2,000 prisoners, including another opposition leader Victoire Ingabire Umuhoza.
Rights groups welcomed the decision but said more should be done to allow for greater political competition and freedom of expression in the country.
“Diane and Adeline Rwigara should never have faced charges for expressing their views” Joan Nyanyuki, Amnesty International’s director for east Africa, said in a statement. “The judgment must be a first step in reversing the ongoing trend of repression in Rwanda.”