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Monday 7 February 2022 - 10:00am

Innocent Bahati - Photo Credit: Adrea Grieder

Burhan Sonmez, Ben Okri, Margaret Atwood, Gioconda Belli, J. M. Coetzee, Ma Thida and Salman Rushdie among hundreds of acclaimed writers, artists and poets urging Rwandan President Kagame to intervene in the case of disappeared poet Innocent Bahati.

Dear President Paul Kagame,

We, the undersigned writers, poets, and artists from Africa and around the world, would like to jointly express our grave concern about the life and whereabouts of Rwandan poet Innocent Bahati, who has been missing since 07 February 2021. Bahati is a well-known poet who, before disappearing, has published poetry on YouTube and Facebook and has regularly performed at poetry events in Rwanda. At the time of his disappearance, he was a teacher at the Green Hills Academy in Kigali.

We write in support of previous calls by PEN International, the world association of writers and other freedom of expression organizations, to urge you to intervene in the case of Bahati and in the interest of his right to life, liberty, and wellbeing.

We understand that Bahati was last seen at a hotel in Nyanza district, in the Southern Province of Rwanda, where he had reportedly gone to meet someone whom he had spoken to on the phone earlier. When Bahati failed to return to Kigali as expected, individuals close to him tried to reach him on his mobile phones without success. Bahati’s phones appeared to be switched off and have remained so ever since.

According to media accounts, on 9 February 2021 a report was made to the Rwanda Investigations Bureau (RIB) about the disappearance of Bahati. Soon after, a spokesperson of the RIB publicly stated that Bahati was not in the agency’s custody. He further said that an investigation was ongoing and that the RIB would not reveal any information at the time.

We are bringing this matter to your attention, with a plea for urgent action because, one year later, Bahati is still missing and his situation unknown. We note with concern that the Rwandan authorities are yet to disclose any progress or outcome of investigations on his case.

As writers, poets and artists, we have legitimate reasons to believe that Innocent Bahati’s disappearance is in relation to his poetry and critical expression on issues affecting Rwandan society. We are aware of reports that he similarly disappeared in 2017 after he had posted a critical comment on Facebook, only to reappear in police custody after several days. Although he was not charged for any offense, he was imprisoned without trial for three months and only freed after a court order.

Further, we have seen media reports attributed to a speech made on 21 March 2021 by the Rwandan Secretary of State in charge of culture Mr. Edouard Bamporiki, on the use of poetry, as follows:

“…one who has nothing to lose may cross the lines, and the one who has no guard will get off the right track. When poetry loses its way, it can mislead the public. It is for this reason that I ask you to forget the difficulties that Rwandan poetry community has known in recent times, but rather to do our part to advise and reprimand those amongst who stray from the right path...”

Coming shortly after the disappearance of Bahati in 2021, these chilling remarks by an official of your administration are hardly coincidental. They suggest a pattern of intolerance to free poetic expression by officials, and they legitimately raise suspicions that Bahati may have been disappeared in relation to his poetry. We believe that someone within the Rwandan administration knows about the whereabouts or fate of Bahati.

Rwanda’s constitution guarantees freedom of expression, with sufficient safeguards against arbitrary use of state power to suppress this right. Rwanda is also obliged under International Human Rights law and standards, to guarantee the right to freedom of expression, including artistic freedom.

Poetry is not a crime. The world awaits to hear the voice of Innocent Bahati, again.

We look forward to your positive intervention, Mr. President, in the interest of justice.

Signed on this day: 7 February 2022

Burhan Sonmez, President, PEN International

Adama Makasuba

Adisa Bašić

Áine Ní Ghlinn

Ajla Demiragić

Alessandra Trevisan

Alex Pearl

Allieu Kamara

Almir Imširević

Amanda Bell

Ana María Fuster Lavín

Andre Derval

Andrea Grieder

Andrea Lešić

Angye Gaona

Anna Heussaff

Anne Tannam

Antje Stehn

Antoine Spire

Arfang M.S. Camara

Ariel Zhu

Arya Rajam

Assan Njie

Ava-Lisa Sedgwick

Bampha Jaiteh

Ben Okri

Bernard Fournier

Bernard Gilbert

Bernard Odendaal

Bernadette Kaimokai

Binta Jaiteh

Bintou Waggeh

Brendan Lynch

Brid Fitzpatrick

Brigitte Gyr

Çağdaş Gökbel

Canisia Lubrin

Carlos Vásconez

Caroline Graham

Caroline Wood

Carolyn Meads

Cathal Póirtéir

Catherine Dunne

Catherine Pont-Humbert

Catrina Wessels

Cecile Oumhani

Celia de Fréine

Christopher Lin

Claire Varin

Clare O’Dea

Clarisa Palmer

Colette Klein

Collette Sell

Conor Kostick

Cung Thi Lan

Dan Midalia

Dang Nguyen

Danie Marais

Daniel Gorman

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Daniele D'alia

Daniele Pantano

Danielle Thibault

Danny Morrison

Danson Kahyana

Daragh Fleming

Dave Duggan

David Ferré

Declan O’Rourke

Deirdre Hines

Dennis Haskell

Diana Menefy

Diane Alméras

Dibi Symington

Dominique Gaucher

Dr. Michael Gregory Stephens

Duong Vu

Ekaterina Turchaninova

Elena Poniatowska

Elif Shafak

Émile Martel

Enver Kazaz

Eric Lax

Esi Edugyan

Fabienne Leloup

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Izak de Vries

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José Luis Acevedo Daza

Jorge Montealegre

Judyth Hill

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K. Satchidanandan

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Kate Ennals

Kate Highman

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Katherine Mezzacappa

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Kätlin Kaldamaa

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