(Nairobi) – Rwandan authorities have not conducted a credible and transparent investigation into the suspicious death in police custody of Kizito Mihigo, a well-known singer. It is essential to carry out an effective, independent investigation with the involvement of foreign experts, including the United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions.
Rwandan authorities reported that they found Mihigo dead in his cell on February 17, 2020 at Remera Police Station, claiming that he had “strangled himself” to death. Days before his arrest, though, Mihigo told Human Rights Watch that he was being threatened and asked to provide false testimony against political opponents and that he wanted to flee the country because he feared for his safety. Mihigo, a government critic previously prosecuted and imprisoned for four years, expressed concern that he faced a serious risk of being killed by state agents.
“The burden of proof is on the Rwandan government to demonstrate that Kizito Mihigo was not unlawfully killed in their custody, but six months later, the government has manifestly failed to do that,” said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Instead of shedding light on the circumstances surrounding Mihigo’s death and prosecuting those responsible, the authorities have promoted a narrative about him being depressed and suicidal.”
The independent, external inquiry should not only examine Mihigo’s arrest and detention in February immediately before his death, but also the abusive politically motivated actions by the authorities against him in 2014 and 2015, and the authorities’ investigation into his death and their actions in its aftermath.
Mihigo was detained in Nyaruguru, near the border with Burundi, on February 13, 2020 with two other people. The Rwanda Investigation Bureau announced late in the afternoon of February 14 that Mihigo was in its custody, and said he was charged with attempting to illegally cross the border, joining “terrorist groups,” and corruption. The circumstances around his arrest and subsequent detention remain unclear.
Rwanda National Police reported that Mihigo died on February 17, allegedly by suicide, hours after they claim to have found his body in his cell at Remera Police Station. The same day, the Rwanda Investigation Bureau spokesperson, Marie-Michelle Umuhoza, told local media that Mihigo had “strangled himself” with his bedsheets and had displayed “unusual behavior” while in custody.
Mihigo was held incommunicado in an unknown location for nine days in April 2014, where he said he was beaten, threatened, and forced to confess to crimes with which he was later charged. In February 2015, the High Court in Kigali sentenced him to 10 years in prison for alleged offenses of forming a criminal gang, conspiracy to murder, and conspiracy against the established government or the president. He was released in September 2018 after a presidential pardon.
Mihigo made a recording on October 6, 2016, while serving his sentence at Nyarugenge Prison in Kigali, that he shared with Human Rights Watch at the time. In it he said that his prosecution was politically motivated and an effort to suppress a song he had released weeks before his arrest. In the song released on March 5, 2014, Mihigo – a genocide survivor – expressed compassion for victims of the genocide and of other crimes committed in its aftermath.
In the recording, Mihigo said he was forced to attend meetings with several high-level government officials, including President Paul Kagame’s cabinet director, Ines Mpambara, and the then-vice president of the Senate, Bernard Makuza, who he said told him that the president did not like his song and that he should “ask for forgiveness” or risk death.
In the recording, Mihigo also said that during his incommunicado detention, from April 6 to 15, 2014, he was beaten and interrogated in front of Dan Munyuza, the then-deputy police inspector general, who told him to plead guilty and “ask for forgiveness” or face a life sentence and death in prison. Munyuza is now the police inspector general.
As set out in the Revised United Nations Manual on the Effective Prevention and Investigation of Extra-legal, Arbitrary and Summary Executions (the Minnesota Protocol), the state’s obligations to respect and protect the right to life mean that it is responsible for a death in custody, unless proven otherwise, particularly 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 February 26, 2020, Rwanda’s National Public Prosecution Authority concluded that Mihigo’s death “resulted from suicide by hanging” and said it would not pursue criminal charges. The prosecution authority said that police officers on duty “did not hear any disturbance,” and that the autopsy report determined that he had died by “asphyxia/hypoxia, with hanging as the most probable cause.”
The results of the Rwanda Forensic Laboratory’s post-mortem examination were not made public. To establish that they are not responsible for Mihigo’s death, the Rwandan authorities should have allowed an independent body to carry out an impartial, thorough, and transparent investigation.
Human Rights Watch wrote to Justice Minister Johnston Busingye on August 10 to request information on investigations conducted into Mihigo’s allegations and his death in custody but has received no response.
Investigations and prosecutions are essential to deter future violations of the right to life and to promote accountability, justice, and the rule of law, and failure to respect the duty to investigate is a violation of the right to life, Human Rights Watch said.
The Minnesota Protocol also provides that in some circumstances, “states have a duty to cooperate internationally in investigations of potentially unlawful death, in particular when it concerns an alleged international crime such as extrajudicial execution.” Harriet Mathews, United Kingdom Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s Africa Director, and Tibor Nagy, assistant secretary for the United States Department of State’s Bureau of African Affairs, have both called for independent investigations into Mihigo’s death.
Rwanda is set to host the next Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, which will include discussions on governance and rule of law. The meeting, initially scheduled for June but postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, is expected to bring together leaders of 53 Commonwealth countries in Kigali. The Commonwealth should ensure that an international investigation into Kizito Mihigo’s death is conducted ahead of the meeting, Human Rights Watch said.
“Kizito Mihigo made serious allegations of torture and other rights violations against high-level government officials who are still in key positions today,” Mudge said. “The allegations shine a light on Mihigo’s suspicious death in custody and should not be swept under the carpet.”
Kizito Mihigo’s Incommunicado Detention and Prosecution in 2014
In the recording made on October 6, 2016, at Nyarugenge Prison in Kigali, Mihigo offered details of his incommunicado detention and trial in 2014. Mihigo’s account includes serious allegations of violations of his rights to freedom of expression, physical integrity, liberty, and a fair trial, which should also be part of any external investigation into his death in custody, Human Rights Watch said.
On March 5, 2014, Mihigo, an ethnic Tutsi, some of whose relatives were killed in the 1994 genocide, released a song called “Igisobanuro Cy’urupfu” ( “Explanation of Death” in Kinyarwanda), in which he said that there is “no such thing as a good death, be it by genocide, war, slaughtered in revenge, vanished in an accident or by illness.” The song was widely seen as symbolic in Rwanda: a Tutsi-genocide survivor showing sympathy not only with genocide victims, but with Hutu who were killed in revenge by soldiers of the current ruling party, the Rwandan Patriotic Front. Human Rights Watch documented the genocide and the 1994 crimes of the Rwandan Patriotic Front in detail. They remain sensitive topics in the country.
In the recording, Mihigo said that following the song’s release, he was repeatedly threatened and summoned by senior government officials and told to ask for forgiveness. Some of the officials cited by Mihigo as issuing threats included Protais Mitali, the then-culture minister; Theos Badege, the then-head of the Criminal Investigation Department; and officials from the presidency.
On March 17, 2014, President Paul Kagame said in a public speech: “I’m not a singer, I could never sing in praise of those who wish Rwanda harm…. He who threatens this country’s peace must pay. We use the small means we have to protect our security.”
In the recording, Mihigo said that on April 6, 2014, two police officers stopped him at a red light in Kigali and forced him into their car. They confiscated his phone and took him to a police station that also served as an unofficial detention facility known as “Kwa Gacinya” in the Gikondo neighborhood. After 30 minutes, he said, he was driven to Kicukiro, where 2 other men got into the car, and he was taken to a forest in Nyanza District. At this point, he said in his recording, “I thought they were going to kill me in the forest, and the population would find my body the next day.” He was not killed, but instead taken to the senate vice president’s office.
During the meeting with President Kagame’s then-cabinet director, Ines Mpambara, then-senate vice president, Bernard Makuza, and then-deputy police inspector general, Dan Munyuza, Mihigo said he was insulted, threatened, and told to ask for forgiveness. He was also questioned about a WhatsApp conversation he had with a representative of an exiled opposition party: “They said I should keep asking for forgiveness, but that they weren’t sure if it would be granted.” Mpambara is the current cabinet affairs minister.
Mihigo, with a black bag over his head, was then taken to a house in an unknown location, where he said the police held him for nine days, until April 15: “I was handcuffed day and night, I ate once every two days…. I was subjected to many heavy-handed interrogations. On April 10 … I was taken to the office of the deputy inspector general of police, Dan Munyuza, and was beaten by police officers while I lay on the floor.” He said he was then taken to the prime minister’s office, where government officials questioned him about his song and his WhatsApp conversation.
On April 15, Mihigo was taken before the media during a news conference. In the recording, Mihigo said Munyuza told him that if he continued to “ask for forgiveness” and pleaded guilty during the trial, “things would get easier,” but if he tried to denounce his treatment in detention and plead not guilty, he would be given a life sentence and would “die in prison.”
In November 2014, Mihigo confessed to all the charges, which included offenses against the state and complicity in terrorist acts, for allegedly collaborating with groups considered by the government to be enemies of Rwanda. In the recording, Mihigo said he made this confession under duress. He also reiterated this to Human Rights Watch several times in conversations between 2017 and 2020.
In February 2015, the High Court in Kigali sentenced Mihigo to 10 years in prison for allegedly forming a criminal gang, conspiracy to murder, and conspiracy against the established government or the president. He was among the 2,000 prisoners released in September 2018 after a presidential pardon, which was also extended to the high-profile political opposition figure Victoire Ingabire.
Mihigo is not the first detainee to die in police custody in Rwanda. In April 2018, the police said that Donat Mutunzi, a lawyer, hanged himself in his cell at Ndera Police Station 10 days after he was arrested. 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 Kagame, was shot dead by police while in custody at Remera Police Station, media reported. A police spokesperson alleged in a statement that Gasakure was shot while attempting to disarm a guard.
In 2017, Human Rights Watch issued a report on abuses in detention in Rwanda, which included cases in which the Rwanda Defense Force detained, interrogated, and tortured detainees in residential houses.
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.