The late Rwandan gospel singer Kizito Mihigo has been feted posthumously after he was found dead in a police cell in February in the capital, Kigali.
He has been named this year’s winner of the Havel International Prize, that celebrates 2activists who exhibit artistic innovation in standing up against dictatorships”, the Human Rights Foundation (HRF) said.
Mihigo was a catholic gospel singer, songwriter, organist, and the founder of the Kizito Mihigo Peace Foundation, which promoted peace, reconciliation, and nonviolence in schools and prisons through concerts, plays, and poetry.
An ethnic Tutsi, he showed tremendous courage in a 2014 song in which he called for compassion for all civilians killed by Paul Kagame’s Tutsi-dominated ruling Rwandan Patriotric Front forces after Rwanda’s 1994 genocide.
The regime quickly banned the song as it contradicted its official narrative, which presents ethnic Tutsis as the sole victims of Rwanda’s tragedy. Mihigo released the song with full knowledge that it would lead to terrible consequences. “The message is sometimes more important than the messenger,” he said. He was detained in order to be paraded as a conspirator in a violent anti-government plot and sentenced to 10 years in prison.
He was released on pardon after serving three years, but he was arrested again while attempting to leave the country and died in police custody in February 2020. The regime claimed it was a suicide but Mihigo told friends weeks before his death that he had been under government harassment and pressure to provide false testimony against political opponents.
Named after the late Czech poet, playwright, dissident, statesman, and former HRF chairman Václav Havel, the Havel prize celebrates activists who exhibit bravery, creativity, and artistic innovation in standing up against dictatorships.
Havel led the nonviolent revolution that freed Czechoslovakia from communist rule, using first his poetry and plays, and later political essays and the Charter 77 manifesto, to challenge arbitrary power and injustice in his country. HRF launched the Havel Prize in 2012 with the support of Dagmar Havlová, Havel’s widow.
Havel Prize laureates receive a bronze sculpture depicting the “Goddess of Democracy,” the iconic figure erected by Chinese students during the Tiananmen Square protests in June 1989. Each sculpture embodies the spirit of creative dissent and represents the power of truth and beauty in the face of brutality and oppression. The laureates also share a prize of $38,000.