Amnesty International is calling for an investigation after a well-known Rwandan gospel singer was found dead in a prison cell.
Kizito Mihigo reportedly died by suicide four days after being arrested near the border with Burundi. Eric Kabera, the police spokesman, said three days after Mihigo's arrest they were investigating why “he was crossing the border illegally and cases of bribery” in a statement.
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.
According to the government, he was arrested while trying to cross the border to Burundi where he intended to join an extremist group. Mihigo’s friends dispute this account, saying the singer had never planned to join an armed group but may have been leaving the country with the intention to return to Belgium, where he once lived, according to published reports.
Muleya Mwananyanda of Amnesty International said the public deserves to hear more facts about this case. She commended the government for opening an investigation but said authorities should not prejudge the outcome by declaring it a suicide.
“Amnesty International is calling for an independent, impartial and thorough investigation into his death,” she told VOA. “We would like to know what the circumstances surrounding it and the treatment during his detention was.”
Mihigo gained fame as a proponent of reconciliation between ethnic Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda. He spoke of his own experience losing his father during the 1994 Rwandan genocide, and founded the Kizito Mihigo Peace Foundation to use art as a healing tool. He was one of several artists who helped compose Rwanda’s national anthem.
But he ran afoul of authorities after recording a song in 2014, titled, “The Meaning of Death,” which was interpreted as criticizing the government of Rwandan President Paul Kagame and questioning the government’s version of the genocide.
Mihigo was arrested days after the song was released and later convicted of conspiracy to commit murder, complicity in a terrorist attack and conspiracy against the government. He remained in prison until 2018 when he was released along with many other prisoners by presidential pardon.
Police said that, prior to his death, he was very quiet and exhibited signs of depression. But Mwananyanda said, even if the death is ruled a suicide, important questions must be asked.
“What have the Rwandan authorities done to ensure that such things are prevented in the future?” she said. “Are there any safeguards in place, for example, that show that somebody is about to commit suicide and so are put on suicide watch?”
She also noted with concern that other Rwandan opposition figures or enemies of the ruling party have either died in detention or under suspicious circumstances.
“This worries us a lot because, in the context of severe repression of any form of dissent, there’ve been so many arrests, convictions and harassment, suspicious killings and disappearances,” she told VOA. “This creates huge pressure on people to behave themselves, but also creates fear in society around the country.”