By DONNA BRYSON
JOHANNESBURG (AP) - A prominent Rwandan exile accuses the president of being a dictator, imprisoning political opponents and destabilizing East Africa, adding in an interview Thursday that he believes the leader, who he once served, has hunted him and other dissidents around the world.
Kayumba Nyamwasa, once Rwandan President Paul Kagame's army chief, spoke to The Associated Press in an exclusive interview Thursday after finishing his testimony as a witness in the trial of six East Africans accused of attempted murder in his 2010 shooting. Rwanda's government has denied involvement in an attack in Johannesburg that left Nyamwasa with a bullet lodged at the base of his spine.
"There is no doubt that my life has been threatened by the president of Rwanda, using government institutions and using hired killer squads," Nyamwasa said. He spoke in the court room where he testified for several days last month and just over two days this week. When he mentioned hired assassins, he gestured to the dock where three Rwandans and three Tanzanians accused of trying to kill him had sat during a trial session earlier Thursday.
The Rwandan government has said it would not comment on matters before a court. Kagame's spokeswoman did not immediately respond to an email requesting comment on Nyamwasa's allegations.
Nyamwasa, who has faced questions about his own conduct when he was close to Kagame, said of Rwanda's president, "I was his chief of staff. I was his ambassador. And I came to South Africa because I'm running away from him. He hires killers to kill me. What else can he be other than a dictator?"
"When I called him a dictator, it was not out of assumption. It was not out of speculation. It was based on facts," he said as his wife Rosette Kayumba sat next to him. His wife, who was in the car with him when he was shot, attended every hearing at which he testified, once bringing along two of their four children.
Nyamwasa said he believes that in addition to the attempt to kill him, Rwandan government agents were behind the killing in Uganda late last year of a Rwandan journalist who was a prominent critic of Kagame. And Nyamwasa cited warnings British police have issued to Rwandan exiles in Britain that their lives were in danger, a threat believed to emanate from the Rwandan government.
Nyamwasa said one reason Kagame wants him dead is that he has evidence Kagame ordered the shooting down of a plane carrying Juvenal Habyarimana, then president of Rwanda in 1994. Rwanda's 100-day genocide was sparked by the death of Habyarimana, a Hutu. Militants from Rwanda's Hutu majority blamed Tutsis for the president's death, sparking the slaughter of more than 500,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus. The genocide ended when Kagame's forces seized power.
The Rwandan government blames Hutu extremists for the crash that killed Habyarimana. A French investigation completed earlier this year found that the missile fire came from a military camp and not Kagame's forces. But Nyamwasa said he had evidence Kagame ordered the plane be brought down. Nyamwasa would not elaborate, but said he would present his evidence to French investigators.
Observers speculate Kagame saw Nyamwasa as a political rival, but Nyamwasa said Thursday he had no personal political ambitions. Working with other dissidents in South Africa and elsewhere, Nyamwasa established the Rwandan National Congress in South Africa. It is dedicated to pursuing peaceful political change in Rwanda, he said Thursday.
He said he began opposing what he called "creeping dictatorship" in his homeland before fleeing to South Africa, arriving just months before he was shot. He compared Rwanda under Kagame to Egypt under now-toppled Hosni Mubarak, saying Kagame's political opponents are jailed, journalists are killed or forced into exile, and judges answer to the president instead of the law. Independent human rights groups make similar charges.
"I protested," Nyamwasa said. "That's why I am in exile."
He has refugee status in South Africa and has been under South African government protection since the shooting.
A Spanish judge in 2008 charged Nyamwasa and 39 other members of the Rwandan military with mass killings of civilians. The Spanish allegations, which have prompted rights groups in South Africa to call for Nyamwasa to be stripped of his refugee status here, stem from accusations Nyamwasa and other senior Tutsis waged a retaliatory extermination campaign against Hutus after the genocide.
Nyamwasa denied accusations he is responsible for human rights abuses or war crimes.