Rwandan gospel singer Kizito Mihigo died in police custody in February. The devout Catholic was just 38 years old, and was once a beloved celebrity, even contributing lyrics to the country’s national anthem. In September, Mihigo was awarded the first posthumous Vaclav Havel Prize for creative dissent by the U.S. based Human Rights Foundation, drawing renewed attention to his suspicious death.
The singer’s plummet from luminary to outcast began just before the 20th anniversary of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, when he released the song “Igisobanuro cy’Urupfu,” or “The Meaning of Death.” His voice deep and soulful, accompanied by rich organ chords, Mihigo challenged in a few lines the official narrative of the genocide, promoted by the government of the current President Paul Kagame.
He reminded listeners that not only Tutsis died, and called on them to remember everyone killed, rather than just those slaughtered by Hutu genocidaires. “These are brothers and sisters. They are too human beings. I pray for them, I comfort them,” he sang. “There is no such thing as a good death, be it by genocide or by war, slaughtered in revenge killings.”
“I think Kizito was convinced that he had a mission on Earth, and that mission was to bring peace and reconciliation to all Rwandans.”
Many interpreted these lyrics as a reference to people who died at the hands of the Rwandan Patriotic Front, as Kagame’s forces fought to secure power. Such statements are tantamount to genocide denial in Rwanda, where the government tightly controls both the press and populace. In 2012, opposition leader Victoire Ingabire was sentenced to 15 years in prison after asking why the official genocide memorial in Kigali failed to include murdered Hutus.
Weeks after “The Meaning of Death” was released in 2014, and as Rwandans began their annual April genocide commemoration, Mihigo disappeared. He was held incommunicado for nine days, allegedly beaten, blindfolded and rarely given food. And when he was brought before the media at the end of the ordeal, authorities accused him of plotting terrorist acts with opposition groups in exile.
Rwandan officials said the charges had nothing to do with “The Meaning of Death,” but Mihigo’s music was quickly banned on all television and radio stations.
At his trial in 2015, the prosecution revealed text messages that they said showed Mihigo planning to assassinate Kagame. The singer pleaded guilty to the raft of charges against him, and asked the judges for clemency. He was sentenced to a decade in jail for allegedly forming a criminal gang, conspiracy to murder and conspiracy against the established government or president.
Mihigo later said his confession was made under duress. In a recording released by Human Rights Watch, he can be heard explaining that Deputy Police Commissioner Dan Munyuza told him that if he begged forgiveness, the trial would be easy. “If I pleaded not guilty and tried to denounce the injustices committed against me, they would give me a lifetime sentence and I would die in prison,” Mihigo said.
It was a strange fall from grace for a singer who had dedicated his life to sharing messages of unity. “I think Kizito was convinced that he had a mission on Earth, and that mission was to bring peace and reconciliation to all Rwandans,” Rwandan human rights activist Ruhumuza Mbonyumutwa said.
Mihigo was an ethnic Tusti born in the southern town of Kibeho, a place famed for its apparitions of the Virgin Mary. Even as a boy he rejected ethnic divisions, telling a teacher he was neither Hutu nor Tutsi but rich, because his family owned a generator.
He survived the genocide as a teenager, losing his father and some 70 relatives to the violence, which killed about 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus. Afterwards, Mihigo enrolled in seminary, his unique voice catching the attention of Kagame, who awarded him a scholarship to study music in Paris. He was a favorite performer at official functions upon his return to Rwanda. And by 2013, just at year before he released “The Meaning of Death,” the government was providing funding to the Kizito Mihigo Peace Foundation, which taught reconciliation in schools and prisons.
Mihigo was certain the song was the root of all of his hardships, calling it the “heart of the matter,” in audio shared by Human Rights Watch. “It was because of the song that I was arrested.”
For other activists, the famed signer’s tribulations were symbolic of the dangers they faced, and of how quickly anyone who challenged the regime could be punished. Mihigo served three years of his 10 year sentence before being freed on presidential pardon in 2018, along with 2,000 other prisoners, including Ingabire. But the singer was closely monitored and could not leave the country without permission.
Mihigo was again arrested attempting to cross into neighboring Burundi this year, accused of trying to join a terrorist group and thrown in jail, where he died four days later. Police allegedly discovered his body hanged in a cell in the early hours on the morning on Feb. 17. Before his arrest, Mihigo told Human Rights Watch that he feared for his safety, and was being forced to falsely incriminate Kagame’s political opponents.
Investigators ruled his death a suicide. But international advocacy organizations, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have continued to call for an independent and credible investigation into Mihigo’s death.
“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 in an August statement.
“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,” he continued.
Awarding the Havel Prize at the Oslo Freedom Forum in September, Garry Kasparov, chairman of the Human Rights Foundation, called Mihigo “a light on to this world.” Created nearly a decade ago, the prize honors artists creatively confronting authoritarianism in the spirit of Czech dissident Vaclav Havel. Havel spent years in and out of communist prisons, and saw his plays and essays censored, before serving as the first president of the Czech Republic. Previous laureates include China’s famed Ai Weiwei and Russia’s Pussy Riot.
More than a month after bestowing the Havel Prize on Mihigo, and some nine months after the singer’s death, Kasparov hopes there will finally be a proper investigation into his death.
“This posthumous prize serves to recognize Kizito in the pantheon of extraordinary and brave creative dissenters in the footsteps of Havel,” Kasparov said. “It amplifies the great truth he died for.”
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