Over 100 acclaimed writers and artists are signatories to an open letter calling on the Rwandan president Paul Kagame to look into the disappearance of the poet Innocent Bahati. They include major international literary figures like Ben Okri, J.M. Coetzee, Margaret Atwood, Yann Martel, Michael Ondaatje.
The letter was shared with Open Country Mag on February 3, by PEN International communications and campaigns manager Sabrina Tucci, and was embargoed until February 7.
“We, the undersigned writers, poets, and artists from Africa and around the world, would like to jointly express our grave concern about the life and whereabouts of Rwandan poet Innocent Bahati, who has been missing since 07 February 2021,” it opens. “We write in support of previous calls by PEN International, the world association of writers and other freedom of expression organizations, to urge you to intervene in the case of Bahati and in the interest of his right to life, liberty, and wellbeing.”
The writers link Bahati’s disappearance to comments by the Rwandan Secretary of State in charge of culture Mr. Edouard Bamporiki, about poetry:
“…one who has nothing to lose may cross the lines, and the one who has no guard will get off the right track. When poetry loses its way, it can mislead the public. It is for this reason that I ask you to forget the difficulties that Rwandan poetry community has known in recent times, but rather to do our part to advise and reprimand those amongst who stray from the right path. . . .”
The worrying remarks, they note, “are hardly coincidental” and “suggest a pattern of intolerance to free poetic expression by officials, and they legitimately raise suspicions that Bahati may have been disappeared in relation to his poetry.”
This is coming days after the novelist Kakwenza Rukirabashaija endured yet another round of torture at the hands of the Ugandan police. In Nigeria, there have been calls for investigation into the disappearance of the social media influencer and government critic Dadiyata–who has been missing for two years and six months now.
Read the full letter.
OPEN LETTER TO PRESIDENT PAUL KAGAME ON THE DISAPPEARANCE OF INNOCENT BAHATI
Dear President Paul Kagame,
We, the undersigned writers, poets, and artists from Africa and around the world, would like to jointly express our grave concern about the life and whereabouts of Rwandan poet Innocent Bahati, who has been missing since 07 February 2021. Bahati is a well-known poet who, before disappearing, has published poetry on YouTube and Facebook and has regularly performed at poetry events in Rwanda. At the time of his disappearance, he was a teacher at the Green Hills Academy in Kigali.
We write in support of previous calls by PEN International, the world association of writers and other freedom of expression organizations, to urge you to intervene in the case of Bahati and in the interest of his right to life, liberty, and wellbeing.
We understand that Bahati was last seen at a hotel in Nyanza district, in the Southern Province of Rwanda, where he had reportedly gone to meet someone whom he had spoken to on the phone earlier. When Bahati failed to return to Kigali as expected, individuals close to him tried to reach him on his mobile phones without success. Bahati’s phones appeared to be switched off and have remained so ever since.
According to media accounts, on 9 February 2021 a report was made to the Rwanda Investigations Bureau (RIB) about the disappearance of Bahati. Soon after, a spokesperson of the RIB publicly stated 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.
We are bringing this matter to your attention, with a plea for urgent action because, one year later, Bahati is still missing and his situation unknown. We note with concern that the Rwandan authorities are yet to disclose any progress or outcome of investigations on his case.
As writers, poets and artists, we have legitimate reasons to believe that Innocent Bahati’s disappearance is in relation to his poetry and critical expression on issues affecting Rwandan society. We are aware of reports that he similarly disappeared in 2017 after he had posted a critical 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 for three months and only freed after a court order.
Further, we have seen media reports attributed to a speech made on 21 March 2021 by the Rwandan Secretary of State in charge of culture Mr. Edouard Bamporiki, on the use of poetry, as follows:
“…one who has nothing to lose may cross the lines, and the one who has no guard will get off the right track. When poetry loses its way, it can mislead the public. It is for this reason that I ask you to forget the difficulties that Rwandan poetry community has known in recent times, but rather to do our part to advise and reprimand those amongst who stray from the right path…”
Coming shortly after the disappearance of Bahati in 2021, these chilling remarks by an official of your administration are hardly coincidental. They suggest a pattern of intolerance to free poetic expression by officials, and they legitimately raise suspicions that Bahati may have been disappeared in relation to his poetry. We believe that someone within the Rwandan administration knows about the whereabouts or fate of Bahati.
Rwanda’s constitution guarantees freedom of expression, with sufficient safeguards against arbitrary use of state power to supress this right. Rwanda is also obliged under International Human Rights law and standards, to guarantee the right to freedom of expression, including artistic freedom.
Poetry is not a crime. The world awaits to hear the voice of Innocent Bahati, again.
We look forward to your positive intervention, Mr. President, in the interest of justice.
Signed on this day: 7 February 2022
Burhan Sonmez, President, PEN International
José Luis Acevedo Daza
Yassin al-Haj Saleh
Linda Maria Baros
Jean Noel Cordier
Marie Laure Coulmin Koutsaftis
Jean Michel Devesa
Jean Philippe Domecq
Omar El Akkad
Gamal El Dine Mona
Ana María Fuster Lavín
Jean Le Boel
Daniel I. Pedreira
Le Phi O
Rae Marie Taylor
Cung Thi Lan
Le Thi Nhi
Le Thi Y
Marcella van der Kruk
Vonne van der Meer
For further information, please contact Sabrina Tucci, Communications and Campaigns Manager: Sabrina.Tucci@pen-international.org | Twitter: @pen_int | Facebook: @peninternational | www.pen-international.org.