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Rwanda's president strikes defiant note in inauguration


KIGALI (Reuters) - Rwandan President Kagame struck a defiant tone in his inauguration speech on Friday after criticism by international rights bodies over his re-election this month.

Kagame won 98.8 percent of the vote in Aug. 4 poll after the election board disqualified one of the candidates who had hoped to run against him.

"Every attempt that was made from within and especially from outside to denigrate the process and glorify the old politics of division, only made Rwandans more defiant and more determined to express ourselves through the vote," Kagame told thousands of people packed in a football stadium to watch the ceremony.

"Our experience is that we will be vilified anyway no matter what. So we might as well do what we know is right for our people," he said.

Later Kagame led the crowd in singing "There is no fight that scares me", a gospel song turned into a political chant.

Kagame, who has been in power for 17 years, was not meant to stand again but Rwanda's constitution was changed in 2015 to allow him extend his rule over the country of 12 million people.

The 59-year-old former guerrilla leader has won praise from the international community for presiding over a peaceful transition from the 1994 genocide, when an estimated 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed.

Since then, Rwanda has worked hard to encourage international investment and crack down on corruption. Foreign direct investment rose to $323 million in 2015, up from $40 million in 2005, according to the World Bank.

But rights groups say the government muzzles its critics and stifled civil liberties and media freedoms. Some of Kagame's political opponents were killed after they fled abroad, in cases that remain unsolved. The government denies involvement.

Ida Sawyer, Central Africa director at international rights body Human Rights Watch, said in a report issued on Friday the election had been preceded by political repression.

“Rwandans who have dared raise their voices or challenge the status quo have been arrested, forcibly disappeared, or killed, independent media have been muzzled, and intimidation has silenced groups working on civil rights or free speech,” she said.

“The Rwandan authorities took no chances with the presidential vote, as repression continued in recent months despite the weak prospects for any opposition candidate.”

A U.S. State Department spokeswoman, Heather Nauert, hailed Rwanda for conducting a peaceful election but said there were concerns over vote counting and "the lack of transparency in determining the eligibility of prospective candidates".

Diane Rwigara, a 35-year-old accountant, was disqualified from running after the election board said she included signatures of dead people in her list of supporters, an accusation she denies.

Another candidate, a Catholic priest living abroad who wanted to return and run for president, was twice barred from boarding a flight to Kigali.

(Editing by Alison Williams)

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