Rwandan opposition leader Victoire Umuhoza Ingabire was unexpectedly freed from jail on Saturday after President Paul Kagame granted pardon to her alongside two thousand other prisoners.
Ms Ingabire said the early release and the recent election of opposition members to Parliament were signs that Rwanda's political space was opening up.
President Kagame approved a presidential order of mercy during a Cabinet meeting on Friday that set free 2,140 prisoners including popular musician Kizito Mihigo.
“I thank the President who gave me this liberation. I would like to ask him, if it is possible, to release other political prisoners who are here,” Ms Ingabire said as she left Mageragere Prison in Kigali.
The leader of the unregistered opposition FDU-Inkingi was clad in her party colours -- red and green.
“If you see the direction of our country today, you see that it is taking a direction where there is hope that there is opening of political space. We know that the Democratic Green Party entered Parliament, now I am released, which is very good. I hope it is the beginning of the opening up of political space in Rwanda,” she said.
Ms Ingabire was arrested in 2010 soon after returning from exile in the Netherlands seeking to contest for the presidency.
She was charged with inciting revolt against the government, forming armed groups to destabilise the country, and minimising the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.
She was sentenced to 15 years in prison in 2013 after a widely criticised trial by the international community.
Her release received mixed reaction with political activists and opposition leaders in the region welcoming the move and some top Rwandan scholars criticising the action.
“I am excited with this news #IngabireFree #MihigoFree. I kindly ask President Paul Kagame and Rwandese government to drop charges against Diane Rwigara and her mother and set them free in the same spirit,” tweeted Tanzania’s opposition ACT-Wazalendo leader Mr Zitto Kabwe.
Tom Ndahiro, a genocide scholar, and Dr Christopher Kayumba, a communications expert, welcomed the release of Mr Mihigo but said that of Ms Ingabire was a bad precedent.
“I find it strange and even suspicious to see Tanzania's Member of Parliament Zitto Kabwe excited or jubilating because Rwanda genocide ideologue Victoire Ingabire is freed among other 2000+ convicts,” Mr Ndahiro said on Twitter.
Dr Kayumba said “the early release of Ingabire Victoire Umuhoza by Cabinet today [Friday] is a mistake! Anyone who peddles the idea of double genocide and ethnic politics must be told in no uncertain terms that it won't be tolerated. Her release doesn't do that.”
Popular gospel singer Kizito Mihigo was arrested in 2014 and jailed a year later for 10 years for conspiring to assassinate the president and other top government officials.
Mr Mihigo was on Monday allowed to withdrawal an appeal against his sentencing.
“I would like to thank President Kagame for pardoning me. This is an important decision that will have an impact on my life as an individual and for the country. I am going to go back to building myself and building my country,” he told journalists on Saturday.
Donning a t-shirt and cap bearing a logo of his foundation, Mr Mihigo said, in addition to getting married, he would restore his Peace Foundation.
The musician is renowned for his songs about genocide, unity, and reconciliation.
He was accused of involvement in activities aimed at destabilising the country and forming alliances with outlawed groups – the exiled opposition group, Rwanda National Congress (RNC) and rebel outfit in DR Congo, the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR).
Ms Ingabire did not reveal her next steps telling journalists that she would do so after recuperating.
The Ministry of Justice said the 2,140 prisoners' sentences were "commuted by presidential prerogative following their most recent applications for clemency in June this year."
Articles 245 and 246 of the Code of Criminal Procedure provide for the release on parole of a convict who has served at least one-third of a sentence of less than 5 years, or two-thirds of a sentence greater than 5 years (or at least 20 years in the case of a life sentence), provided at least one of the different conditions stipulated under the law are met.
Opposition politician, Diane Rwigara, who sought to challenge for the presidency in 2017, was blocked by the electoral commission and subsequently arrested and charged with treason.
Her trial and that of her mother are underway.
President Kagame has been praised for bringing stability and economic growth to his country but often comes under fire for restricting political freedom.
He commonly wins re-election with over 90 per cent of the vote.
Although Rwanda is constitutionally a multi-party system there is practically no opposition within the country with most of the recognised parties supporting the ruling Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF- Inkotanyi).
However, in parliamentary elections earlier this month the only registered opposition Green Party won two seats, for the first time.