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Advocates Want Independent Review of Death of Rwandan Gospel Singer

FILE - Rwandan singer Kizito Mihigo is escorted after his release from prison, in Kigali, Rwanda, Sept. 15, 2018.

Friends and supporters are demanding answers following the death of a Rwandan gospel singer in police custody in February.

Rwandan authorities have called Kizito Mihigo’s death a suicide, but his supporters believe he was killed for his political opinions. They have offered no solid evidence to back those assertions.

Mihigo was honored in September with the Vaclav Havel International Prize for Creative Dissent, the first time the human rights award was given posthumously.

“We are not here to mourn,” said Garry Kasparov, a Russian chess champion-turned-activist who is the chairman of the nonprofit Human Rights Foundation. “We want to take this opportunity to celebrate Kizito’s life, musical talent and courageous commitment to what Havel called ‘living in truth.’”

While celebrating his life, his friends say Mihigo has an enduring legacy.

“We are happy now because the world is recognizing his efforts,” said Delphine Uwituze, partner of the late singer.

A survivor of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, Uwituze said the award will support “his mission about peace and reconciliation among Rwandans.”

Mihigo died four days after being arrested near the border with Burundi. Police alleged he planned to cross the border and join a rebel group. Mihigo was a politically active artist who, although once celebrated by the Rwandan government, had fallen out of favor and been accused of collaborating with extremists.

His 2014 song “The Meaning of Death” was interpreted as criticizing the government of Rwandan President Paul Kagame and questioning its version of the genocide.

A report by Rwanda’s prosecutor general said Mihigo’s death was a result of asphyxia and he was found hanging by a bedsheet. The report stated that police on duty in the prison did not hear a disturbance and there was no reason to file charges in the death termed a “suicide by hanging.”

Lewis Mudge, the central Africa director at Human Rights Watch, said he spoke to Mihigo days before he was arrested. Mudge said Mihigo was fearful of being detained by authorities and had been planning to flee the country. He called the official report of the suicide “suspect.”

“In Rwanda, this is another pattern of people who are politically sensitive, who die under mysterious causes while in detention,” Mudge told VOA. “There are numerous people who died over the last few years who have died, whether it be suicide in jail, whether it be people trying to escape or people who have gone missing from Rwandan detention and the authorities say they escaped. We're very concerned that this is how Kizito met his end.”

Mihigo’s friends say he was in good spirits and had no intention of committing suicide.

“Kizito is a strong man; even when he was in custody before, he was strong. There was no problem with him. That’s why, me, personally, I can’t accept that idea of depression,” Uwituze said.

Mudge said, no matter what, Mihigo should have been monitored and protected while in detention. And Kasparov believes if the intent was to silence Mihigo, it will not succeed.

“With Kizito dead and discredited, the regime wants us to forget about him and move on. Before his death, Kizito said that while he knew that releasing the [‘Meaning of Death’] song would lead to terrible consequences, he could not help but release it. The message is sometimes more important than the messenger,” Kasparov said.