Six months after his supposed ‘suicide’ while in police custody, the authorities failed to shed a light on the circumstances surrounding Kizito Mihigo’s death and prosecuting those responsible, Human Rights Watch said.
The rights group calls on the Rwandan authorities to conduct a credible and transparent investigation into the suspicious death in police custody of Mihigo, a well-known singer.
“The burden of proof is on the Rwandan government to demonstrate that Kizito Mihigo was not unlawfully killed in their custody” said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch.
Mudge instead said the government promoted a narrative about Mihigo being depressed and suicidal.
On February 17, 2020, Rwandan authorities reported that they found Mihigo dead in his cell 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.
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.
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.
Human Rights Watch said an 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 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.
Mihigohave said previously 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 05, 2014, Mihigo – a genocide survivor – expressed compassion for victims of the genocide and of other crimes committed in its aftermath.
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. (Source: HRW)