A year after the mysterious disappearance of Rwandan poet Innocent Bahati, hundreds of writers around the world – including Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje – signed a letter voicing their concern that he had been a victim of the Rwandan government’s intolerance of free expression.
“Poetry is not a crime,” the writers said in their letter last month about Mr. Bahati, whose work often criticized poverty and hunger in Rwanda. “We believe that someone within the Rwandan administration knows about the whereabouts or fate of Bahati.”
Within days of the letter, Rwandan authorities leaped into action. They announced, without providing any evidence, that Mr. Bahati had crossed the border to Uganda and was being financed by “anti-Rwanda elements.”
This attempt to end the global concern about the poet’s fate, however, didn’t impress Noel Zihabamwe, a Rwandan human-rights advocate who lives in Australia. He had heard the same story before as the official explanation for the fate of his own brothers, who disappeared in Rwanda in 2019. The authorities said that his brothers, too, had crossed the border to Uganda.
“This is a common excuse they use for any disappearance they are questioned about,” Mr. Zihabamwe told The Globe and Mail. “It has no credibility and it doesn’t stand up to any independent scrutiny.”
Mr. Zihabamwe knows as much about the subject as anyone. Because of widespread publicity about his case, he has become a magnet for Rwandans with similar stories. More than 70 people, he says, have told him about the disappearances of family members or friends in Rwanda. In total, more than 200 disappearances were described by the people who contacted him.
“People call me and begin crying immediately,” he said. “I feel hopeless about it. I feel traumatized.”
In September, 2019, he said, Rwandan police removed his two brothers from a bus, just a few weeks after he had spoken anonymously to a local television network about Rwanda’s spying on dissidents in Australia. The brothers were never seen again.
If they had entered Uganda, they would certainly have contacted him, Mr. Zihabamwe said. But he has heard nothing from them.
“The authorities knew that I was very active and outspoken, and the only way to reach me was to reach my brothers, who paid the price,” he said. “They want to intimidate and silence people, so they won’t speak out.”
The disappearance of his brothers is being investigated by a United Nations group, the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances.
In a letter in November, the working group asked the Rwandan government to halt the intimidation and harassment that Mr. Zihabamwe and people around him are reportedly facing as they search for the brothers. Some of them were interrogated or placed under surveillance by Rwandan authorities after the UN began investigating the case.
In many of the reported cases in Rwanda over the past several years, those who were detained or disappeared had attracted attention for voicing opinions that the authorities did not like.
This has become a pattern in Rwanda, with many people targeted for arrest or prosecution for the views they express, according to a report to be released on Wednesday by Human Rights Watch (HRW).
The report says the human-rights group has monitored a series of trials in which the authorities “pursued politically motivated prosecutions and perpetuated a culture of intolerance of dissent.”
Those targeted were “opposition members, journalists and commentators” who were prosecuted “on the basis of their speech and opinions,” the report says.
“Judicial authorities in Rwanda, lacking the independence to stand up and protect free speech in accordance with international law, have unjustly convicted and jailed people based on their protected speech and opinions,” said a statement by Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at HRW.
Several of those targeted were using YouTube as a platform for self-publishing opinions that the government disliked, the report says. Mr. Bahati was one of them. He was a popular poet who used YouTube to publish his work on social and human-rights issues in Rwanda. He disappeared on Feb. 7, 2021, in “suspicious circumstances,” HRW says.
In their letter, published by PEN International last month, the writers from around the world said they had “legitimate reasons to believe that Innocent Bahati’s disappearance is in relation to his poetry and critical expression on issues affecting Rwandan society.”
The letter, signed by more than 300 writers, noted reports that Mr. Bahati had similarly disappeared in 2017 after he had posted a critical comment on Facebook. He was later found to be in police custody and was imprisoned for three months without trial.
In a number of other cases, according to HRW, government officials have threatened or prosecuted Rwandans for mentioning crimes committed by the Rwandan military during or after the 1994 genocide, or for questioning the government’s official version of the death of Kizito Mihigo – a gospel singer who died in police custody in 2020 after previously being arrested for a song that challenged the official narrative of the genocide.
Sabrina Tucci, a spokesperson for PEN International, said the Rwandan government’s claims about Mr. Bahati have not eased the group’s worries about him.
“We still have the same concerns,” Ms. Tucci told The Globe. “We continue to press for full accountability and are dissatisfied with the casual pronouncements attributed to Rwandan officials about the case.”