Civil Society calls for investigation into death of popular musician and activist

Censorship of the media and self-censorship of reporters and citizens remain commonplace in Rwanda. The government has increasingly blocked access to news websites based abroad, likely due to many journalists having fled who are operating from exile. Threats to those in exile are common and the recent extradition treaty signed with the Government of Uganda has created increased fear of returning to persecution for those working in Uganda. Pro-government views dominate domestic media. Public spaces in Rwanda are being increasingly restricted, both before and after the outbreak of COVID-19 in the country. Currently, Rwanda is under total lockdown, which is being enforced by the army. On 25th March 2020, police allegedly shot and killed two men who were violating the conditions of the lockdown by being on the streets.

Expression

On 20th February 2020,Human Rights Watch called for justice over the death of popular singer and activist Kizito Mihigo who was found dead in his cell on 17th February 2020. Although the police cited suicide as the cause of his death, Human Rights Watch indicated that Mihigo had recently informed them that he was being pressured to provide false testimony against political opponents and wanted to flee the country because he feared for his safety. He had been arrested on 13th February 2020 near the border with Burundi and charged with attempting to illegally cross the border, joining “terrorist groups” and corruption.

Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International's Director for East and Southern Africa said:

“There must be no whitewash. The investigation should establish all the facts, including the possible involvement of others and whether prison practices and conditions caused or contributed to Kizito Mihigo’s death.”

Earlier in 2014, Mihigo had been arrested, beaten and forced to confess, charged and sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment for conspiracy to murder or harm President Paul Kagame after he released a song praying for victims of the 1994 genocide. He was later released in 2018 after a presidential pardon.

Mihigo is not the first high-profile person to die in police custody in Rwanda. A thorough investigation into his death is yet to take place. 

In a separate development, on 21st February 2020, it was reported that Rwanda and Uganda signed an extradition treaty at the border between the two countries in an attempt to improve relations. The treaty provides a bilateral legal framework to handle alleged subversive activities practised by nationals in the territory of the other party. It is feared that such an agreement will allow for Rwandan dissidents, especially those involved in the Rwanda National Congress (RNC), to be extradited to Rwanda. This could be a particular concern for Rwandan citizens who are in exile in Uganda who are deemed to be engaging in political activities.

In March 2020, it was reported that two former senior Rwandan military officers are looking to quash their convictions for “inciting the public” before the East African Court of Justice (EACJ). The two, Col Tom Byabagamba and Brig-Gen (Rtd) Frank Rusagara, were arrested and charged with knowingly spreading “rumours” with intent to incite citizens to oppose and revolt against the established government, committing acts aimed at tarnishing the image of the country and illegal possession of arms, and were originally sentenced in 2016 to 20 and 21 years in jail respectively. The court of appeal in Kigali later reduced their sentences to 15 years each. Byabagamba and Rusagara argue that their continued detention is unlawful and amounts to an infringement of the Treaty establishing the East African Community. The two have not been given copies of the judgment since the decision was made by the court of Appeal on 27th December 2016.