PEN International calls on the Rwandan authorities to urgently come clear and publicly account for the whereabouts of poet Innocent Bahati who has been missing since 7 February 2021. PEN is gravely concerned about Bahati’s safety and life and calls for urgent measures to taken and publicly reported by the Government of Rwanda to guarantee his safety. PEN has received reports that Innocent Bahati has been missing since 7 February 2021 after he had reportedly gone to meet an unnamed person he had just spoken with on phone at a hotel in Nyanza district, in the Southern Province of Rwanda. When Bahati failed to return to Kigali after the meeting as he had planned, a fellow poet and housemate tried to reach him on his mobile phones without success. Bahati’s phones had been switched off.
On 9 February, Bahati’s housemate visited the hotel to make inquiries to no avail, after which he notified the Rwanda Investigations Bureau (RIB). A spokesperson of the security agency has been quoted saying that the investigation was ongoing and that the RIB would not reveal any information at the time. Nothing has been heard from the authorities on the progress of this purpoted investigation. PEN believes that Bahati could be a target of repression by the Rwandan authorities for his legitimate exercise of freedom of expression. We fear that the missing poet could be yet another victim of enforced disappearance.
“After Innocent Bahati went to meet someone and did not return, his phone has been silent. His whereabouts remain unknown. His words haunt and resonate, but he remains missing. He has committed no crime. Speaking against poverty, against abuses, against injustice, is not a crime. Rwandan authorities must investigate his disappearance, release him if he is in their custody, and secure his safe return if he was taken away by unknown forces. Rwandans need to hear his voice," said Salil Tripathi, Chair of the Writers in Prison Committee, PEN International.
Please send appeals to the Government of Rwanda, urging the authorities to:
- ·Immediately make public the outcome or progress of investigations into the disappearance of Innocent Bahati, and if in the custody of the Rwandan state, disclose his whereabouts;
- Guarantee Bahati’s safety, wellbeing, and human rights, including the right to freedom of expression;
- Respect Rwanda’s constitutional guarantees on freedom of expression and to desist from arbitrary use of state power to suppress freedom of expression and silence critics; and
- Comply with Rwanda’s obligations under International Human Rights law and standards on protection of the right to freedom of expression, including artistic freedom.
Send your appeals to:
Role: President of the Republic of Rwanda Twitter: https://twitter.com/PaulKagame Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Presi... Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Jeannot K. Ruhunga
Role: Secretary General of the Rwanda Investigation Bureau (RIB) Twitter: https://twitter.com/RIB_RW Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Rwand... Email: email@example.com
*** Please send appeals immediately ***
PEN members are encouraged to:
· Publish articles and opinion pieces in your national or local press highlighting the case of Innocent Bahati and the state of freedom of expression in Rwanda.
· Share information about Innocent Bahati’s disappearance and your urgent appeal action on social media platforms.
Please inform PEN International of any action you take and of any responses you receive.
Innocent Bahati is a well-known Rwandan poet who has a reputation for his critical expression on social issues through his poetry. Among the themes Bahati explores in his poems include human rights abuses, poverty, the refugee crisis, criticism of autocratic rule and reconciliation. He publishes his poetry on his YouTube and Facebook channels and regularly performs at poetry events in Rwanda. His poems include ‘Mfungurira’ (Open for me) ‘Rubebe’; and ‘Uwenda Ngomba u Rwanda’ (The Debt I Need for Rwanda); among many others.
Friends and associates of Bahati believe that the disappearance of Innocent Bahati is in relation to his poems and critical expression on issues affecting the Rwandan society. PEN International has reviewed reports alleging that before Bahati’s disappearance, a prominent pro-government operative had made comments on his social media platform linking Bahati’s critical expression to opponents of President Paul Kagame’s administration, all who have been targeted for repression by the Rwandan authorities because of their dissenting views. In 2017, Innocent Bahati reportedly disappeared after he posted a poetic 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 and freed after three months.
Freedom of Expression in Rwanda
Freedom of expression is enshrined in the Constitution of Rwanda and the country has ratified the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights (ACHPR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Despite its international obligations to promote and uphold the right to freedom of expression, in practice, this right is under relentless attack in Rwanda, with critics and opponents of President Paul Kagame and his Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) ruling party systematically targeted for repression and silencing.
The 2020 Freedom in the World Report by Freedom House scores Rwanda as ‘not free’ based on its poor record on democratic governance, rule of law and respect for human rights. The World Press Freedom Index 2020 ranks Rwanda at 155/180 countries surveyed. At the root of the dismal rating is the country’s authoritarian rule that denies citizens their constitutionally guaranteed rights to freedom of expression, assembly, and association.
Individuals who peacefully oppose, express dissenting opinions, or criticize the president or the RPF are constantly subjected to threats, violence, arbitrary arrest, unlawful incommunicado detention, often at unofficial detention facilities, torture, judicial harassment through prosecution on trumped up charges and prolonged trials, enforced disappearances, and assassination. During Rwanda’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) at the Human Rights Council on 25 January 2021, Rwanda received strong criticism on its poor human rights record.
Rwanda retains laws that restrict freedom of expression and impose criminal and civil penalties for legitimate online and offline activity. Through use of often vague legal provisions and outright misuse of rule of law, the authorities have created an intimidating environment that hinders writers, artists – including musicians and poets, journalists, and media outlets from working freely. The country’s cybersecurity law includes vaguely described offenses like ‘publishing rumours that may incite fear, insurrection or violence…or that may make a person lose their credibility’ with penalties of up to five-year imprisonment and a fine of between US $1000 – 3000. Rwanda’s Information, Communication and Technology (ICT) laws negate internet freedom, and they restrict freedom of expression by prohibiting the dissemination of what the law ambiguously refers to as “grossly offensive” or “indecent” messages and the use of ICTs to cause “annoyance, inconvenience or needless anxiety”. The spectre of the 1994 genocide is commonly used to describe media outlets that criticise government actions as ‘divisionist’ with ambiguous offences such as ‘inciting ethnic hatred’; promoting ‘genocide ideology’; ‘threatening state security’ and loosely defined or interpreted crimes like ‘inciting terror acts’ are extensively applied to target individuals and groups critical of the ruling party, government policies or the president.
Rwanda’s hostile political, legal and policy ecosystem is a calculated means of repression. Coupled with official impunity for human rights violations, lack of an independent Judiciary and absence of parliamentary oversight, Rwanda is a difficult place for independent journalists and artists to do their legitimate work. Self-censorship is a recourse for many and those who do not practice it face reprisals. Even those who are forced into exile live in constant fear for their lives, following several reported incidents of prominent regime critics being attacked or killed in exile by suspected Rwandan agents.
The government often blocks access to online media platforms based outside of the country and the authorities have also been found to use spyware on Rwandan political dissidents living abroad by
monitoring their mobile and digital communications, and even accessing their locations. It is common for President Kagame to openly threaten his critics living in the diaspora. For example, in 2019 he was quoted saying that “Those making noise on the internet do so because they’re far from the fire. If they dare get close to it, they’ll face its heat.” These threats have been implemented, with the reported numerous arrests, enforced disappearances, and mysterious deaths of Rwandans with dissenting opinions.
For more information, please contact Nduko o’Matigere, Africa Regional Coordinator at PEN International, Koops Mill, 162-164 Abbey Street, London, SE1 2AN, UK – e-mail Nduko.oMatigere@pen-international.org