Two journalists and an evangelist allegedly in police custody were today cleared of all charges as prosecutors sought to keep them in detention.
The group, all working for the same online publication IBYISHIMO.com which writes about religion, were not in court when the Judge issued the order. They are in custody.
Tuesday’s session had been scheduled by court to rule on the provisional detention demanded by prosecution. However, the defense had since the journalists were arrested in late January, argued for their innocence and pleaded for their freedom.
The accused are Rene Hubert Nsengiyumva the site’s publisher, Jean Paul Niyitanga, the editor and local evangelist Steven Habimana Alias Niyibeshaho. Nsengiyumva is the one in the above photo with his wife on their wedding.
The troubles of the three stem from a the Miss Rwanda 2019 contest. Among the contestants, Josiane Mwiseneza, divided opinions so dangerously that the government anti-genocide commission (CNLG) had to intervene.
It issued a statement detailing a campaign on Facebook which was using ethnic undertones to promote Mwiseneza. The campaign was largely being driven by accounts associated with Rwandan exiles.
On January 7, prosecutors claim that IBYISHIMO.com site ran a story that described Mwiseneza as candidate for Rwandans, while others were foreigners.
The next day, a video was published on the site’s YouTube channel IBYISHIMO TV in which the evangelist Steven Habimana Alias Niyibeshaho said if Mwiseneza is not crowned Miss Rwanda 2019, Rwandans would be in tears and sorrow.
Prosecutors argued in the Nyarugenge court of first instance that the article and video were spreading hate and ethnic divisionism.
Evangelist Habimana is quoted in text as saying: “I read some comments which are more than two million on different social media platforms. I found all people talking about one person. It means something […] Should Miss Josiane not be crowned as Miss Rwanda there will be weeping and mourning all over the country. People have been fed-up with Miss Rwanda pageant, now it is our opportunity to see if there is transparency in Miss Rwanda or not.”
The video version of one of the evangelist’s quotes picked by prosecutors reads: “If Mwiseneza is not crowned, the one who will be crowned will not be Rwandan, but Egyptian or Ethiopian.”
As par Article 164 of the penal code, the three faced up to 5 years in jail and fine of up to Rwf 1m each.
Defense lawyer Me. Gerard Hakizimana argued in past weeks that the interpretation being advanced by prosecution was a fabrication.
In his submission, he said that by making reference to Egypt or Ethiopia, they were advancing the notion that some of the contestants use skin bleaching products, and Mwiseneza was the exception.
In a surprising turn of events today, court ruled that the accused had no case to answer and acquitted them.
Amid muted expression of relief from friends and family of the accused, the presiding judge ruled that the three be released immediately.
Prosecution was given 5-day window within which to appeal.
Meanwhile, in another separate higher court, was another trial involving journalist and publisher Robert Mugabe, of Great Lakes Media, an online publication.
The Tuesday session came with its own dramatic scene, just like previous ones.
Mugabe is accused of sexually abusing a 17yr-old girl, then going for her 19yr-old sister who he impregnated. He later took the girl for abortion.
Mugabe was first released on bail, but taken back into detention after prosecutors successfully appealed.
Appearing on Tuesday for continuation of the trial, Mugabe, a trained lawyer and is defending himself, caused lengthy laughter when he accused prosecutors and investigators of using him as a mouse for scientific research.
He claimed that his medical samples had been taken previously, but that investigators returned again to take another lot, as the former had been supposedly lost.
Prosecutors say the new samples had been taken to Germany for analysis.
Court is scheduled to deliver its verdict on Mugabe’s fate on February 22.
The case has been ongoing since September last year.