KIGALI (Reuters) - Rwanda’s first post-genocide president walked out of prison on Friday, freed after a presidential pardon for a 15-year sentence he received on charges that included inciting ethnic violence.
Pasteur Bizimungu was jailed in 2004 after a trial critics said was politically motivated. He had been convicted for creating a militia, embezzling state funds and inciting ethnic violence in a nation still healing from genocide.
An ethnic Hutu, he was appointed president when the ruling Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) took power after the 1994 genocide, in which extremists from the Hutu majority butchered 800,000 Tutsis and politically moderate Hutus.
President Paul Kagame, whose Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Army ended the hundred days of slaughter, was then vice-president, but in reality had more power than his superior.
“I want to thank the president for the pardon he has given. It has taken me by surprise,” Bizimungu, dressed in a suit and tie, told reporters after he left prison.
Kagame gave no reason for the pardon.
“Based on the prerogative of mercy entrusted to him by the constitution, President Paul Kagame has today extended pardon to Mr. Pasteur Bizimungu and waived off the remaining part of his sentence,” a statement said.
Cooperation between Bizimungu, a Hutu, and Kagame, a Tutsi, was intended to symbolise post-genocide reconciliation.
But their relationship soured, and in March 2000, Bizimungu resigned after falling out with fellow senior RPF members over the make-up of a new cabinet. Bizimungu was arrested in 2002.
In 2006 he lost a court appeal to have his conviction overturned, having claimed it was politically motivated. He subsequently sent Kagame a letter, pleading for mercy and a release he said would “be for the good of the nation”.
Bizimungu, who is in his mid-fifties, joined the RPF in 1990, when it was a rebel group fighting to overthrow the regime of late president Juvenal Habyarimana, whose death set off the genocide after a rocket downed his plane.
He lived in exile in Belgium from 1990 to 1994 and served as an RPF representative to peace negotiations in Tanzania in 1993.
After his resignation, Bizimungu formed an opposition party that was immediately outlawed. Shortly before his arrest, Kagame publicly warned him not to dabble in divisive politics.
Rights groups said at the time of the trial Bizimungu’s arrest and prosecution were politically motivated, and Kagame has been accused in the past of stifling dissent by arresting critics and accusing them of ethnic incitement.