Photo Credit: om@nski photo
There are growing concerns for the health of Rokia Traoré, the internationally celebrated Malian singer, who has been on hunger strike at the Fleury-Mérogis prison near Paris since she was arrested on 10 March on allegations of kidnapping her daughter in a child-custody dispute.
Her lawyer, Kenneth Feliho, said: “I am very worried. She is only drinking. She has not been eating for over a week and her immune system is weak.”
Among those calling for the musician’ release are African stars including Salif Keita, Youssou N’Dour and Angélique Kidjo. Damon Albarn, who performed with her in the group Africa Express, wrote: “We demand, for humanitarian reasons, the immediate release of Rokia Traoré, whose fragile health is deteriorating day by day.”
Traoré was arrested at Charles de Gaulle airport while travelling between the Malian capital, Bamako, and Brussels. She had planned to attend a hearing at which she hoped to overturn a 2019 decision by a Belgian court that had given sole custody of her five-year-old daughter to her former partner Jan Goossens. Goossens is the director of the festival of Marseilles, and is a Belgian citizen living in France; Traoré has both Malian and French citizenship.
Traoré had also hoped to challenge a European arrest warrant that had been issued against her for “kidnapping, forcible confinement and hostage taking” of her daughter, because she had refused to hand her over to her father. In a statement issued from prison she said: “I started a hunger strike ... to ask for a fair trial in Belgium and for the European arrest warrant to cease to be unfairly enforced.”
She has not been allowed any visitors because of the coronavirus pandemic, and even Feliho has not been allowed to see her since Thursday. Laure Panerai, who helps run Traoré’s cultural centre, the Foundation Passerelle in Bamako, said: “No one has access to her. It’s very distressing. With coronavirus spreading, and professionals of the justice system in France asking the French government to release some prisoners who are at the end of [their sentences], we don’t understand why Rokia is still in jail. She is not a criminal. She is famous. She will not run away. The whole country here is asking for her release.”
This is more than a painful celebrity custody battle because it also involves a clash between European and African justice systems. France was acting on an arrest warrant from Belgium, but officials in Mali see the situation very differently. A Malian court gave Traoré, and not Goossens, custody of the child, and the Malian government issued a statement in support of the singer, pointing out that she has a Malian diplomatic passport.
In her statement issued from prison, Traoré said: “I was arrested on leaving the plane by six police officers to whom I immediately presented my Malian diplomatic passport and my Malian state mission order, which gave me diplomatic immunity. The judge who ordered my detention at Fleury-Mérogis told me that Malian diplomatic immunity would not be valid in Europe.”
Traoré filed complaints about Goosens in Mali, France and Belgium, which she insists have not been investigated – though later in her prison statement she claims they were a major factor in the Malian decision to grant her sole custody.
In an interview with a Belgian paper, Goossens said that “all horrible and false accusations were investigated and dismissed. All attempts to negotiate and achieve solutions were refused. I’m being cut out of my daughter’s life in a brutal way … my wish is that the rule of law can do its work … so that our daughter can see both her parents again.”
The daughter of a Malian diplomat, Traoré is a celebrity in a country that is best known in the west for its remarkable musicians. She is an ambassador for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and as a singer-songwriter has pioneered an adventurous fusion of African and western styles. She has worked with the US director Peter Sellars, and won the major French music award Victoire de la Musique. In 2019, she was artistic director of the Brighton festival.
Lucy Duran, professor of music at Soas, University of London, unfavourably compared the treatment of Traoré’s diplomatic immunity with that of “a white American woman who knocked over a teenager in the UK”, referring to Anne Sacoolas, the US diplomat’s partner who refuses to voluntarily return to the UK to face charges of causing the death, by dangerous driving of the British teenager Harry Dunn. “It smacks of the worst kind of racist misogyny,” Duran said.
It seems likely that Traoré will remain on hunger strike until 25 March, when a French court will decide whether she is freed or extradited to Belgium. If found guilty of kidnapping her daughter she could face five years in prison.