A Rwandan court Thursday found dissident politician DianeRwigara not guilty of forgery and inciting insurrection, charges that saw her imprisoned for over a year and highlighted a crackdown on opposition in the country.
Rwigara, 37, was arrested in September 2017 after her attempt to run in Rwanda's presidential election was denied on grounds she had allegedly forged the signatures of supporters for her bid.
She was also charged with inciting insurrection for comments criticising the government and President Paul Kagame in the run-up to the election.
A panel of three judges ruled that the prosecution failed to prove that Rwigara had personally forged signatures.
The court also ruled that Rwigara's criticism of the government through press conferences was an exercise of her freedom of expression, guaranteed by both the constitution and international law.
"All charges... have been dropped. The court finds that the prosecution charges were baseless," said presiding judge Xavier Ndahayo.
Charges were also dropped against Rwigara's mother Adeline, and four others with whom she had exchanged Whatsapp messages accusing the government of killing her husband Assinapol Rwigara, who died in a car accident in 2015 that his family has long held was an assassination.
Assinapol was an influential industrialist who played an important role in financing the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front (FPR) in the 1990s before later falling out with its leaders.
The court ruled that Adeline was merely exercising her right to freedom of speech in a private manner.
- 'Fighting for freedom' -
"This is a testament that all these charges against me and my mother and family members are made up. I am extremely happy and I now have the energy and the zeal to continue my passion of fighting for freedom of expression and human rights in Rwanda," Rwigara told AFP.
Prosecutors had sought 22-year jail terms for her and her mother.
The outspoken young politician was an unusual voice of criticism in tightly run Rwanda ahead of the August 2017 election and had already been the victim of a smear campaign when nude pictures, purporting to be of her, were shared online.
Since her arrest, Rwigara's brothers and sister have been interrogated, family assets have forcibly been auctioned to pay off a multi-million dollar tax claim, while a hotel they owned was demolished for allegedly failing to abide by city guidelines.
Meanwhile she and her mother spent over a year in prison before their release on bail in October.
Their release came a month after the unexpected freeing of Victoire Ingabire, another woman who sought to run for the presidency in 2010. She was blocked from competing, arrested, tried and jailed for six years.
- Ruling 'a first step' -
Amnesty International welcomed the court's decision.
"Diane and Adeline Rwigara should never have faced charges for expressing their views. While we welcome their discharge and acquittal, we are concerned that the right to freedom of expression remains under attack in Rwanda," the rights group said in a statement.
"We call on the Rwandan authorities to build on this judgement and work towards developing greater tolerance and acceptance of alternative and critical views. The judgement must be a first step in reversing the ongoing trend of repression in Rwanda."
Kagame has been Rwanda's de facto leader since 1994 when his rebel forces invaded and stopped the genocide that killed at least 800,000 mostly ethnic Tutsis and seized power.
He became president in 2000, a post he might hold until 2034 thanks to a constitutional amendment waved through three years ago. He won the presidential election from which Rwigara had been excluded with 99 percent of the vote.
Rwanda regularly comes under fire from rights groups for curbs on freedom of expression, extrajudicial killings and lack of political freedom.
However its economic turnaround and stability since the genocide has also won the country praise, with Kagame regularly feted on the international stage.
Rwanda's former foreign minister Louise Mushikiwabo was in October elected to head a global association of French-speaking nations in the latest boost to the country's image.