KIGALI, Rwanda (AP) — A popular Rwandan gospel musician who in 2015 was found guilty of conspiracy to murder or harm President Paul Kagame was found dead in a police cell Monday in the capital, Kigali, authorities said.
Kizito Mihigo, 38, an ethnic Tutsi survivor of the 1994 genocide that killed more than 800,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutus who tried to protect them, killed himself in the morning hours, a police statement said.
The official account of a suicide was expected to be met with skepticism in a country where the government is frequently accused of targeting perceived critics.
Described by many as Rwanda’s biggest cultural icon and a devout Catholic known for songs promoting healing and forgiveness, Mihigo had been pardoned in 2018 but was re-arrested last week. Police asserted that he had been trying to flee to neighboring Burundi to join groups fighting the Rwandan government.
“He has been in police cell for three days as police investigated why he was crossing the border illegally and cases of bribery,” police spokesman John Bosco Kabera said in a statement. He didn’t respond to calls from The Associated Press.
Police said Mihigo had been allowed to meet family members and his lawyer. It was not immediately known whether he had been in a solitary cell.
A family member declined to comment. The news of the death was met with disbelief.
“Too often, sensitive cases in Rwanda result in mysterious deaths or disappearances,” said Lewis Mudge with Human Rights Watch. He called for an investigation that would examine the possibility that Mihigo “could have been ill-treated or killed in custody.”
The Rwanda Investigations Bureau tweeted on Thursday that the country’s security organs had handed over Mihigo, saying the charges against him included illegally crossing to Burundi, joining terrorist groups and corruption.
Mihigo was arrested in 2014 and sentenced the following year to 10 years in prison after he was found guilty of conspiracy to murder or harm Kagame and other top leaders. He was also convicted of complicity to overthrow the government and conspiracy to form alliances with negative groups to destabilize the country.
He pleaded guilty to all charges, leading the judge to say he was given a lenient sentence because he had made the court’s work easy.
Weeks before his arrest he had released a song, “The Meaning of Death,” in which he seemed to challenge the official narrative of the genocide. Some have speculated that it was the song that led to his arrest.
Mihigo was pardoned in 2018 by Kagame alongside Rwanda’s leading opposition leader, Victoire Ingabire. But last week, police said his attempt to escape constituted a breach of conditions of the presidential order, meaning the revocation of the pardon.