Rwanda’s “Michael Jackson” on Trial for Genocide

by Christopher Le Mon

The ICTR began last month the trial of Simon Bikindi, (indictment), who is accused of six counts of genocide, for writing and recording popular songs that, according to his indictment, incited and encouraged genocide. (Articles by Guardian, Reuters, BBC, and VoA.) Bikindi had earned himself the nickname “Rwanda’s Michael Jackson” (presumably for the popularity of his songs).

The Prosecutor has charged that Bikindi conspired with the leadership of the Rwandan government to whip up anti-Tutsi sentiment among the population in order to prepare the ground for later killings, through the recording and release of his songs. Bikindi also is alleged to have played a key role in starting RTLM, a radio station whose broadcasts helped genocidaires to locate Tutsis in hiding, and also played songs and messages promoting the genocide. Bikindi is also accused of recruiting Interahamwe killers, and personally ordering the execution of certain victims.

A 2002 NYT article describes the effect of Bikindi’s songs on those who carried out the genocide:

According to eyewitness reports, many of the 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.

The media section of the landmark 1999 Human Rights Watch book, by Alison Des Forges, entitled Leave None to Tell the Story: Genocide in Rwanda, also provides good background information.

Bikindi’s indictment raises a critical question of the line between free speech and incitement to genocide. Although his alleged collaboration with the leadership of the Rwandan government forms a large part of his alleged culpability for conspiracy and abetting genocide, the most difficult legal question is Bikindi’s potential liability for writing and recording songs that contributed to the genocide. As is the case with most genocide trials, proving that Bikindi intended for his songs to incite or abet genocide, or proving his membership in a joint criminal enterprise the purpose of which was to carry out the genocide, will be the most difficult aspect of the prosecution’s case.

Although there is some precedent for conviction of media figures for their use of newspapers or radio in promoting international crimes (the Streicher trial at Nuremberg and the “Media” trial at the ICTR come to mind), Bikindi’s prosecution does seem like a new chapter that could expand the scope of criminal acts involving genocide.

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