The government of Rwanda should ensure a thorough, independent, and transparent investigation into the death in police custody of Kizito Mihigo, a well-known singer and activist, Human Rights Watch said on Thursday.
It said Rwanda’s international partners should call for accountability for Mihigo’s death before and during the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting scheduled to take place in Kigali in June 2020.
“His death adds to the list of disappearances, murders, and suspicious deaths of perceived critics and opponents of the Rwandan government, and the authorities’ failure to deliver justice in these cases sends a deliberately chilling message,” HRW added.
The Rwanda National Police announced on February 17, 2020 that Mihigo had been found dead at 5 a.m. in his cell at the Remera Police Station in Kigali, the capital, in an alleged suicide. He had recently told Human Rights Watch that he was being threatened to provide false testimony against political opponents and wanted to flee the country because he feared for his safety. In 2014, Mihigo was held incommunicado for nine days, during which he was beaten and forced to confess to crimes with which he was later charged in court.
“Whatever the cause of Kizito Mihigo’s death, Rwandan police were responsible for his life and safety in detention,” said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “When it comes to rule of law and respect for human rights, Rwanda’s partners and donors should not be silent. They should call for a credible investigation and an unequivocal commitment to deliver justice for this critical case.”
The Rwanda Investigation Bureau (RIB) said Mihigo was handed over by “security organs” on February 13, 2020, near the border with Burundi in Nyaruguru District, and charged with attempting to illegally cross the border, joining “terrorist groups,” and corruption.
The Rwanda National Police did not provide further information in its February 17 statement to support its conclusion that Mihigo had committed suicide. Marie Michelle Umuhoza, the spokesperson for the investigation bureau, later told local media that Mihigo had used bedsheets to “strangle himself” and that his body has been taken to Kacyiru Hospital for a post-mortem examination.
An independent autopsy report should be commissioned, and judicial authorities should ensure that any investigation establishes Mihigo’s treatment in detention and examines the possibility that he could have been ill-treated or killed in custody, Human Rights Watch said.
Under international human rights law, Rwandan authorities have an obligation to conduct a thorough and independent investigation and to account for any death in custody. The investigation should identify anyone responsible if his death was due to negligence or unlawful action and should lead to their prosecution. Failure to investigate and prosecute anyone responsible would violate Rwanda’s obligations to protect people from arbitrary deprivation of life and to provide an effective remedy.
On April 6, 2014, Mihigo was arrested and detained in an unknown location until April 14, when he was presented to the media during a press conference. He was taken before a prosecutor the next day.
Before and during his incommunicado detention, senior government officials repeatedly questioned him about a song he had released the month before in which he prayed for victims of the country’s 1994 genocide as well as for victims of other violence. They also questioned him about his alleged links with the Rwanda National Congress (RNC), an exiled opposition party with recently reported ties to armed groups.
Mihigo told Human Rights Watch that police officers beat him and forced him to confess to the offenses with which he was later charged in court. Mihigo and his co-accused – Cassien Ntamuhanga, a journalist, Agnès Niyibizi, and Jean-Paul Dukuzumuremyi, a demobilized soldier – were charged with, among other things, offenses against the state and complicity in terrorist acts for allegedly collaborating with groups considered by the government to be enemies of Rwanda. In November 2014, he confessed to all the charges, although he later told Human Rights Watch he did so under duress.
In February 2015, the High Court in Kigali sentenced Mihigo to 10 years in prison for alleged formation of a criminal gang, conspiracy to murder, and conspiracy against the established government or the president. Ntamuhanga was sentenced to 25 years in prison and Dukuzumuremyi to 30 years. Niyibizi, accused of carrying money to assist in the alleged offenses, was acquitted. Ntamuhanga reportedly escaped Nyanza prison on October 31, 2017, alongside two other convicts.
Mihigo was among the 2,000 prisoners released in September 2018 after a presidential pardon, which also included high-profile political opposition figure Victoire Ingabire. Since then, at least four opposition members and one journalist have either died or disappeared in mysterious circumstances in Rwanda. Although the investigation bureau said they opened investigations into these cases, Human Rights Watch has not been able to determine that any of the findings were made public or if anyone was prosecuted.
Mihigo is not the first detainee to die in police custody in Rwanda. In April 2018, 10 days after he was arrested, police said Donat Mutunzi, a lawyer, hanged himself in his cell at Ndera police station. According to reports, the autopsy revealed “severe wounds” on his face and temples. In February 2015, Emmanuel Gasakure, a cardiologist and former doctor to President Paul Kagame, was reportedly shot dead by police while in custody at Remera Police Station. A police spokesperson alleged in a statement to the media that Gasakure was attempting to disarm a guard when he was shot.
Human Rights Watch has documented numerous cases of arbitrary arrests, detentions, prosecutions, killings, torture, enforced disappearances, threats, harassment, and intimidation against government opponents and critics in Rwanda. In addition to the repression of critical voices inside Rwanda, dissidents and real or perceived critics outside the country – in neighboring Uganda and Kenya, as well as farther afield in South Africa and Europe – have been attacked and threatened.
Rwanda is set to host the next Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, which will include discussions on governance and rule of law. The meeting is expected to bring together leaders of 53 Commonwealth countries in Kigali in June. The Commonwealth should publicly raise concerns about grave human rights violations in Rwanda, Human Rights Watch said.
“Ahead of the Commonwealth meeting, its members should demand accountability for Mihigo’s death,” Mudge said. “They should speak out strongly and in public, including in Kigali, if Rwanda continues to undercut the Commonwealth’s values.”