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Call for Independent Investigation into Rwandan Singer’s Death

3/9/2021Letter

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Excellencies,

Civil society organizations around the world are calling on the Rwandan authorities to allow an independent, impartial, and effective investigation into the death in custody of Kizito Mihigo, a popular gospel singer and peace activist. As your governments mark Commonwealth Day today and prepare to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Kigali in June, we are writing to ask you to engage with your counterparts in the Rwandan government in support of this call.

On February 14, 2020, the Rwanda Investigation Bureau (RIB) confirmed that Mihigo had been arrested close to the border, accused of attempting to illegally cross into Burundi, joining “terrorist” groups and of corruption, as well breaching the terms of his release from prison in 2018. Just days later, on February 17, 2020, Rwanda National Police announced that Mihigo had been found dead in his police cell in Kigali at 5 am that morning, in an alleged suicide.

However, there are reasons to doubt this version of events. In Rwanda, dissidents and critical voices are often the target of threats, judicial harassment, and arbitrary arrest. In recent years, several opposition members and journalists have gone missing or been found dead in suspicious circumstances. After he released a song in 2014 expressing compassion for victims of the genocide and of other violence, understood as a reference to the crimes committed by the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front as it took control of the country in 1994, Mihigo was threatened, detained incommunicado for 9 days and subsequently prosecuted for conspiracy against the government, among other charges. On 27 February 2015, he was found guilty and sentenced to 10 years. After his presidential pardon and release in 2018, and up to the days before his death, Mihigo informed contacts that he was being threatened to give false testimony against political opponents of the government and wanted to flee the country because he feared for his safety.

The news of Mihigo’s death caused shockwaves in Rwanda and beyond. Before falling out of favour with the government in2014, Mihigo had played a prominent role in Rwandan public life including helping to compose the new national anthem in 2001 and regularly performing at official functions. A genocide survivor himself, Mihigo’s work to promote reconciliation received equally widespread recognition; in 2011, for example, First Lady Jeannette Kagame presented him with a Celebrating Young Rwandan Achievers award in honour of his work.

According to General Comment No. 3 on Article 4 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, “where a person dies in state custody, there is a presumption of state responsibility and the burden of proof rests upon the state to prove otherwise through a prompt, impartial and transparent investigation carried out by an independent body.” Likewise the Revised United Nations Manual on the Effective Prevention and Investigation of Extra-legal, Arbitrary and Summary Executions (the Minnesota Protocol), provides that there is a general presumption of state responsibility for a death in custody, unless proven otherwise, and underlines that this is particularly so in cases “where the deceased was, prior to his or her death, a political opponent of the government or a human rights defender; was known to be suffering from mental health issues; or committed suicide in unexplained circumstances.”

On the day that Mihigo’s death was announced, and before an independent investigation could have been conducted, RIB spokesperson Marie-Michelle Umuhoza told local media that Mihigo had “strangled himself” with his bedsheets, had displayed “unusual behavior” while in custody, and had refused to speak with investigators, his lawyer and his family. On February 26, citing an autopsy report, the National Public Prosecution Authority concluded that Mihigo’s death “resulted from suicide by hanging” and said that it would not pursue criminal charges.

Mihigo is one of several detainees to have died in suspicious circumstances while in detention in Rwanda over the last several years. Independent, impartial and effective investigations capable of leading to credible prosecutions are essential to deter future violations and to promote accountability, justice, and the rule of law, and failure to conduct such investigations is a violation of the state’s obligations under the right to life.