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Rwanda/ India: PEN International calls on Commonwealth countries to affirm commitment to freedom of expression

Monday 20 June 2022 - 11:57am

Innocent Bahati (Credit: Andrea Grieder) and Hany Babu (Credit: anonymous)

On 20 June 2022, representatives of the 54 nations that together constitute the Commonwealth will convene in Kigali, Rwanda for one week for the 26th Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM). Held for the first time since 2018 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, PEN International calls on all Commonwealth countries to avail of this important opportunity to publicly recommit themselves to protecting freedom of expression, as expressed within the Commonwealth Charter.

The Commonwealth Charter defines the common values and principles binding its members, articulating a clear commitment to internationally recognised human rights norms and the right to freedom of expression specifically.

However, all too often these stated commitments remain rhetorical and aspirational in practice, with considerable gaps in the implementation of effective protections for freedom of expression at the national level, resulting in the silencing of critical opinions and the persecution of those who peacefully express dissenting views across Commonwealth nations.

With the 26th CHOGM taking place in Rwanda, a country that has frequently received strong criticism for its poor human rights record and relentless persecution of government critics, it is vital that Commonwealth countries send a clear and unified signal on member states’ domestic and international obligations to the right to freedom of expression, and the CHOGM is a fitting opportunity to do so.

As the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting takes off in Kigali today, PEN International wishes to bring to the attention of the delegates two cases of writers at risk, with a call to them to raise these cases of grave concern with the representatives of the two Commonwealth countries, Rwanda and India.

“The failure of Rwandan authorities to fully account for the whereabouts of the young poet and spoken word artist, Innocent Bahati, 16 months after he suspiciously went missing, and the relentless persecution of academic and writer, Hany Babu by the Indian authorities are emblematic of the two Commonwealth member countries’ blatant violation of the Commonwealth Charter and their international human rights obligations. That this year’s CHOGM is being hosted by one of these nations is an opportunity for peers to renew the Commonwealth’s commitment to freedom of expression by engaging with the Rwandan and Indian authorities on these two cases”, said Burhan Sonmez, President of PEN International.

PEN International believes that a gathering like CHOGM is also a moment for Commonwealth peers to hold one another accountable in line with the Commonwealth Charter. If the authorities of India and Rwanda observed the Charter, Hany Babu would not be facing egregious persecution and violation of his human rights; and Innocent Bahati would not remain unaccounted for 14 months after he disappeared in suspicious circumstances.

PEN International Urges CHOGM delegates gathered in Kigali from 20 – 25 June 2022 to live and exercise the spirit and word of the Commonwealth Charter and demand that justice is urgently and unconditionally done for Hany Babu and Innocent Bahati by Commonwealth members, India and Rwanda respectively.

For further information on Innocent Bahati please contact Nduko o’Matigere, Africa Programme Coordinator at PEN International, Unit A, Koops Mill, 162-164 Abbey Street, London, SE1 2AN, Tel.+ 44 (0) 20 7405 0338, email: ross.holder@pen-international.org

For further information on Hany Babu please contact Ross Holder, Asia Programme Coordinator at PEN International, Unit A, Koops Mill, 162-164 Abbey Street, London, SE1 2AN, Tel.+ 44 (0) 20 7405 0338, email: ross.holder@pen-international.org

Rwanda – Innocent Bahati: Down arrow

Innocent Bahati is a popular Rwandan poet, known for his open and critical expression on social issues. He publishes his poetry on YouTube and Facebook and regularly performs at poetry events in Rwanda.

Bahati has been missing since 07 February 2021 after he reportedly went for a dinner meeting with an unnamed person at a hotel in Nyanza district in the Southern Province of Rwanda. He had reportedly received a phone call from the person prior to the meeting. After Bahati failed to return to Kigali on the same day as expected, a fellow poet and housemate tried to reach him, but Bahati’s mobile phones were off. After two days of trying to find him, his friend reported to the Rwanda Investigations Bureau (RIB) whose spokesperson reportedly said 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. Rwandan authorities have ignored all public appeals to publish findings of their purported investigations.

Friends and associates of Innocent Bahati believe that his disappearance is in relation to his critical poetry. It is reported that prior to his disappearance, a prominent pro-government Rwandan scholar had posted comments on Facebook linking Bahati to critics of President Paul Kagame who have been targeted for repression by Rwandan authorities because of their dissenting views. In 2017, Innocent Bahati had similarly disappeared after he made a critical post on Facebook, only to reappear in police custody several weeks later. Although he was not charged for any offense, he was imprisoned without trial and freed after three months following a court order.

PEN International fears that Innocent Bahati is a victim of enforced disappearance and continues to urge the Rwandan authorities to account for his whereabouts and condition, and if in the custody of the Rwandan state, release him unconditionally or charge him in open court.

India – Hany Babu: Down arrow

Hany Babu is an associate professor of language and linguistics at Delhi University. He is a committed anti-caste activist and advocate for greater protections of marginalised languages, and has regularly used his writing to highlight the relationship between human rights and linguistic plurality.

Babu is one of a group of 16 writers, scholars and human rights activists, including poet Varavara Rao, who have been detained by the Indian government under India’s counterterrorism law, the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA).

The charges against the group, referred to as the BK-16, arose from their alleged involvement in the violence that erupted during a celebratory gathering to mark the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Bhima Koregaon, a significant cultural event among India’s Dalit community.

The authorities have argued that the BK-16 are responsible for instigating the violence. However, several United Nations Special Rapporteurs have repeatedly expressed their grave concern over the legitimacy of the arrests, and over 50 public intellectuals, including Noam Chomsky and Nobel laureates Wole Soyinka and Olga Tokarczuk, have signed an open letter calling for the group’s release.

On 10 September 2019, the police raided Babu’s home in connection with the case, seizing his laptop, mobile phone and two books on caste and social formations without a search warrant. He was formally arrested by India’s National Investigation Agency (NIA) on 28 July 2020 and sent to India’s notorious Taloja Central Jail where he has been subjected to grossly inadequate conditions.

In May 2021, Babu was repeatedly denied basic medical treatment after contracting a severe eye infection, eventually resulting in his temporary hospitalisation before he was forced to return to prison. Babu’s bail plea was denied by the NIA court in February 2022, and his appeal is now due to be considered by the High Court later this month.

PEN International calls for Hany Babu’s immediate and unconditional release, along with all those unjustly detained in India for their peaceful expression.