Rwanda: War crimes trial feared to legitimise new repression of musicians

14 November 2006
On 18 September 2006 a UN war crimes trial began in Tanzania, charging a musician with inciting genocide in Rwanda. If convicted, the unintended consequence might be repression elsewhere of legitimate forms of musical expression.
Rwandan singer-songwriter Simon Bikindi stands accused of composing and singing songs which incited civilians to kill Tutsis as well as other Hutus who sympathised with them.At a hearing in April 2002, Bikindi pleaded not guilty to all charges, and when the court case began in September 2006 in Arusha, Bikindi’s lawyer, Wilfred Nderitu, denounced the charges as blatant violations of Bikindi’s human rights and a denial of his artistic liberty, his freedom of thought, expression and speech.
“Truth will prevail over lies, and love over hatred,” Mr Bikindi is quoted by BBC News to have been saying in March 2004.

Prosecutor Hassan Bubacar Jallow told the tribunal that Bikindi “used his renowned talent for the use in a criminal enterprise.”

This is the first time that a creative artist has been brought before an international criminal court and charged with using that creativity to incite genocide. The charges raise questions about where the line should be drawn between freedom of musical expression, on the one hand, and incitement to kill, on the other, and the trial could well change the limits of what is legally deemed culpability for war crimes in the eyes of the law. Can a musician, by presenting views, however unpalatable they may be, hold responsibility for the actions taken by others?
Among some lawyers Bikindi’s prosecution is regarded “a landmark trial” – a new chapter that could expand the scope of criminal acts involving genocide.

Freelance South African journalist Stephanie Nieuwoudt follows the court proceedings in Arusha, and she wrote in an article for Institute for War and Peace Reporting:
“The chamber judges in the Bikindi case are caught between a rock and a hard place. If they find him not guilty of inciting genocide with his songs, victims of the 1994 slaughter are certain to cry foul. But if they convict him, the unintended consequence might be repression elsewhere of legitimate forms of political and artistic expression.”

In her well-written report on the case, she quotes the executive director of the Johannesburg-based Freedom of Expression Institute, Jane Duncan, as saying that unfortunate consequences may arise if Simon Bikindi is convicted:
“While there is no doubt that his songs fed into the general hysteria that fuelled the genocide, it may be difficult to prove a causal link between his songs and the genocide,” Jane Duncan said.
In other words, proving that Bikindi intended for his songs to incite or abet genocide could be the most difficult aspect of the prosecution’s case.

Jane Duncan is also concerned because songs, by their very nature, are metaphorical. This came out in a testimony in the trial where one witness referred to Bikindi’s songs as ‘full of allusions and images, the meaning of which was clear to any Rwandan’.
Jane Duncan explains:
“Direct incitement of particular violent acts would need to be proved, which may not be possible given the artistic nature of his songs. If he is convicted, it may lead to repressive governments using this as an excuse to ban musicians who are critical of the status quo.

What actually happened?

According to eyewitness reports, many of the Hutu killers sang Bikindi’s songs as they hacked or beat to death hundreds of thousands of Tutsis with government-issued machetes and homemade nail-studded clubs.

“In these songs, Bikindi said we had to fight the Tutsis with all our strength, that the Tutsis wanted to bring back serfdom. The songs were full of allusions and images, the meaning of which was clear to any Rwandan. Rise up against the Tutsis, that was the kind of message in his songs,” testified a former member of the Interahamwe militia to the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in October 2006. The witness is a former butcher, known as AHB, who is serving a life sentence in Rwanda for his role in the killings of 800,000 Tutsis in 1994.

52-year-old Simon Bikindi is a Hutu musician who was very popular in Rwanda 12 years ago – the most famous rwandese troubadour of his generation, nicknamed “Rwanda’s Michael Jackson”. His anti-Tutsi songs were playlist staples on the extremist “Hutu Power” radio station Radio Télévision Libre de Mille Collines which played a large role in the Rwandan genocide. At the time of the genocide, he was a well-known composer and singer of popular music and director of the performance group Irindiro Ballet – a company renowned for its blend of traditional music and dance.

In the months prior to the genocide, Bikindi allegedly “consulted with President Juvénal Habyarimana, Minister of Youth and Sports Callixte Nzabonimana and military authorities on song lyrics” before releasing them to be played on the radio station. His hate songs were played many times a day over the radio station, and over a public address system as Bikindi drove around in his vehicle in Gisenyi.

According to a report by the Hirondelle news agency, which reports extensively on Rwandan affairs, Bikindi incited the Hutu population with the words,

“The majority population, it’s you, the Hutu, I am talking to.
You know the minority population is the Tutsi.
Exterminate quickly the remaining ones.”
After the 100-day genocide in Rwanda in 1994, Simon Bikindi fled to the Netherlands. He was arrested on 12 July 2001 and sent to Arusha in Tanzania where he has been in custody the last five years, imprisoned at the United Nations Detention Facility under indictment by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.

To learn more about the long list of charges, see ‘Concise Statement of Fact’, page 2-5 in the ‘Amended Indictment’. We have placed a link below to the confidential-stamped paper. According to this paper of prosecution, Simon Bikindi not only contributed to the atrocities through his music, but took part in the extermination plan himself, including the recruitment and training of Interahamwe militia members.

Debate about hate speech

There is a great deal of debate internationally on how hate speech should be defined.Jane Duncan, executive director of the Johannesburg-based Freedom of Expression Institute, said that hate speech is defined differently in different countries. See link below on the right concerning this issue as well as Freemuse’s position in relation to this.

About International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda

Formed in late 1994, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda has so far tried 31 suspects, convicting 26 and acquitting five. 25 trials, including Bikindi’s, are now in progress.

In earlier judgments, the tribunal convicted three major media players on charges of genocide, incitement to genocide and crimes against humanity: Ferdinand Nahimana and Jean-Bosco Barayagwiza who were in charge of Radio Télévision Libre de Mille Collines, and Hassan Ngeze, director and editor of the newspaper Kangura. Nahimana and Ngeze were imprisoned for life and Barayagwiza for 35 years.

The judges hearing the case are In


Institute for War and Peace Reporting – 9 November 2006:
‘Arusha Trial Raises Freedom of Speech Questions’
  What can you sing?
Read more about ‘Hate Music’ and the limits to musical expression
UN News Centre – 18 September 2006:
‘Rwandan singer accused of using music to incite genocide goes on trial at UN tribunal’

United Nations – International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda:

‘Amended Indictment Pursuant To Decisions of Trial Chanber III (42 pages in pdf format)’

The official home page of International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda contains more documents on the court case:

Wikipedia – the free encyclopedia:

‘About Simon Bikindi’
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