Calls for countries to re-evaluate their relations with the Rwandan government are increasing following the death in police custody last week of famous singer Kizito Mihigo. Mihigo was Rwanda’s beloved gospel singers who, at the age of 38, was disappeared by Rwanda’s security police on February 13th, as he tried to cross the border into Burundi. Mihigo is the latest in a long line of individuals perceived as a political threat by the Rwandan regime who appear to have been murdered by the state.
The response to Mihigo’s death in detention has been so robust that it may spell the beginning of the end of the impunity the regime has so far enjoyed internationally following the murder and disappearance of opposition figures.
Just as South Africans are hearing about the foul play of apartheid security police in the death in detention of trade unionist Neil Aggett in 1982, where he was likely tortured to death rather than the official version that he committed suicide, 38 years later history is repeating itself - but in Rwanda.
The Rwandan government claims Mihigo was found hanging in his cell last week by his bed sheet. This is reminiscent of testimony at the Aggett inquest last week by former apartheid security police who claimed they found Aggett hanging in his cell by a tablecloth - an absurd lie considering detainees in John Vorster square were never allowed possessions, let alone tablecloths to eat on. Similarly, Rwandan activists who have been detained in police cells argue that detainees are never given bedsheets.
A number of witnesses and reporters claim to have seen Mihigo’s body before he was buried last Saturday, and allegedly saw injuries on his face and the front part of his body. It is alleged that only state agents were allowed to dress him before he was put into the coffin. Ishema TV reporter Cyuma Dieudonne is one of the reporters who claim to have seen injuries on Mihigo’s face.
Just prior to his abduction by security police on February 13th, Mihigo had told Human Rights Watch that he was being threatened by Rwandan authorities to provide false testimony against political opponents, which is why he wanted to flee the country because he feared for his safety. Human Rights Watch says his goal was not to join rebels in Burundi, as the Rwandan government alleges, but to get to Belgium where he had lived previously. Rwanda was preventing him from travelling out of the country, hence his attempt to cross the border into Burundi.
According to HRW, in 2014 Mihigo was held incommunicado for nine days, during which he was beaten and forced to confess to crimes which he was later charged with in court. Mihigo said he was made to give a forced confession under duress to a list of charges including conspiracy against the government and plans to assassinate President Paul Kagame.
Human Rights Watch has documented that during this period - between 2010 and 2016 - scores of Rwandans whom the government suspected of collaborating with their “enemies” were detained unlawfully and tortured in military detention centers for prolonged periods by Rwandan army soldiers and intelligence officers. The HRW report describes systematic patterns of torture where detainees gave accounts of severe beatings, electric shocks, asphyxiation, and mock executions, all in clear violation of Rwandan and international law. HRW’s findings are based on interviews with more than 230 people during that period.
In February 2015 Mihigo was sentenced to ten years in prison but was released in 2018 as part of a Presidential pardon for over 2,000 prisoners, including opposition figure Victoire Ingabire. Since then at least four high profile opposition members and a journalist have died or disappeared in mysterious circumstances.
"The political space in Rwanda is closed," Ingabire said in late 2018 after her release from prison. "I was in prison and spent eight years and when I was released I thought the government of Rwanda was ready to open up the political space, but one month later, our vice president disappeared [Boniface Twagirimana], four months later my assistant [Anselme Mutuyimana] was killed, in July our representative in eastern province disappeared [Eugene Ndereyimana], and yesterday our national coordinator [Syridio Dusabumuremyi] was murdered."
Mihigo was not the first detainee that the police claimed had “hanged himself in his cell.” In April 2018 the Rwandan police claim that Donat Mutunzi, a lawyer, hanged himself in his cell at a police station. According to reporters, the autopsy revealed severe wounds on his face and temples.
It is true that Rwanda does have legitimate security concerns, but by disappearing political opponents it is going about addressing these concerns in exactly the wrong way.
Mihigo’s death in detention last week is therefore not the only instance of a case so similar to that of Neil Aggett’s death, but seems to be the continuation of a pattern of deaths.
What did the international community say about this when Rwanda was the Chair of the African Union? What will Africa and the world say about this when Rwanda hosts the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Kigali in June? Should such a meeting even be held in Rwanda when torture and deaths in detention are continuing with seeming impunity.
* Shannon Ebrahim is Independent Media's Group Foreign Editor.