Honors for Late Rwandan Musician Kizito Mihigo

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On September 25, 2020, Kizito Mihigo was awarded the Václav Havel Human Rights Prize for Creative Dissent. He is the first posthumous recipient of this prize.. His the foundation promotes peace, reconciliation, and non-violence through music.

Born in 1981, Mihigo became a well-known post-genocide gospel singer. Since he started composing music at the tender age of nine, he played children’s songs in the early roots of his career. Tragically, his father died in the 1994 Rwandan genocide, and he alluded to this horror in his works. In his over 400 songs, Mihigo promotes the processes and virtues of healing, reconciliation, forgiveness, and harmony. After the release of The Meaning of Death, with lyrics that indirectly challenged the Rwandan government’s account of the genocide, his music was banned from airing on radio stations and television. He was eventually arrested and charged with terrorism and collaboration with opposition movements which sought to overthrow the government.   Before the song’s release, the Rwandan government had been funding his peace foundation, and the first lady of Rwanda had generously given him a scholarship to study abroad.

In 2015, the High Court of Kigali sentenced him to ten years for these unsubstantiated allegations. In September 2018, Mihigo was released through a presidential pardon, along with 2,000 other prisoners. On February 13, 2020, the Rwanda Investigation Bureau (RIB) publicly announced that Mihigo had been arrested allegedly trying to cross to neighboring county Burundi to join forces  hostile to the current regime. Four days after his arrest, on February 17, he was found dead in his prison cell at the Remera police station in Kigali. The RIB emphatically declared that he had committed suicide by hanging. However, the public was and still skeptical.

Philippe Basabose, a spokesman for thirty-six genocide survivors living abroad, wrote an open letter to President Paul Kagami, insisting on a further investigation by international experts into this unusual “suicide.” However, prosecutors unwaveringly stated that the evidence and witness statements proved beyond a reasonable doubt that Mihigo’s death was by suicide. Likewise, the Rwanda National Police provided no additional information or evidence about the controversy. Nevertheless, international human rights organizations have called for a more comprehensive investigation into suspicious deaths in custody besides Mihigo’s.

Many cases of human rights violations in Rwanda include threats, harassment, intimidation, arbitrary arrests, police detentions, prosecutions, as well as disappearances, torture, and murders, for those who oppose the Rwandan government. Kizito Mihigo died young and was and still is loved more than his killers in his native country Rwanda and beyond.

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