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Last updated on 12.03.2021 at 10:18

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Activists, journalists in exile sentenced to life in prison in a trial clouded by secrecy

Activists, journalists in exile sentenced to life in prison in a trial clouded by secrecy

On 2nd February 2021, it was publicly announced that 34 individuals, who live in exile, were sentenced to life in prison. According to a document signed by the Supreme Court, the ruling happened on 23rd June 2020, seven months prior to the announcement. Among the individuals who were sentenced figure journalists, civil society leaders and lawyers

Association

On 2nd February 2021, it was publicly announced that 34 individuals, who live in exile, were sentenced to life in prison. According to a document signed by the Supreme Court, the ruling happened on 23rd June 2020, seven months prior to the announcement. Among the individuals sentenced are journalists, civil society leaders and lawyers. In a statement, 18 Burundian organisations said the accused were not informed and proceedings occurred in secrecy. The statement further called the judgement 'a parody of justice aimed at silencing human rights defenders, namely members of human rights organisations, journalists and lawyers, for good.'

The public announcement coincided with the start of a dialogue between Burundi and the European Union (EU) to restart diplomatic relations, which had been suspended for six years. The EU had suspended aid and imposed sanctions on officials over human rights violations since 2015. 

Expression

At the end of January 2021, current president Evariste Ndayishimiye instructed Burundi's national media regulator, the Conseil national de la communication (National Communication Council - CNC) to engage with media outlets that have been subject to restrictions to 'find solutions to differences'. A few days later, on 1st February 2021, the CNC held an initial meeting with representatives of some sanctioned media outlets present in Burundi. On 22nd February 2021, the CNC lifted a ban on Bonesha, a local radio station. News outlet IWACU reported that CNC indicated, in a meeting, that they would see to the 'relevant technical services' so that the news site would be made accessible in Burundi and that the comment section would be authorised to reopen again. The IWACU site had been blocked in Burundi since October 2017. 

Association in Burundi

Burundian civil society grew in size and influence after the mid-1990s and made important contributions to deepening democracy, including during free and fair elections in 2005 when the civil war ended.

Burundian civil society grew in size and influence after the mid-1990s and made important contributions to deepening democracy, including during free and fair elections in 2005 when the civil war ended. As a consequence of its influence, organised civil society has been one of the main targets of the government’s latest crackdown. In 2016, the authorities continue to harass, arrest, brutalise and in some cases detain, kill or cause the disappearance of civil society leaders as well as individual activists (including students) who took part in the anti-third term demonstrations in April 2015. Following the attempted assassination of prominent human rights defender Pierre Claver Mponimba in August 2015, two members of his family were brutally murdered. In November 2015, the government froze the bank accounts of fourteen prominent CSOs, including several human rights organisations, a move which has seriously impeded civil society’s ability to conduct human rights monitoring and advocacy. As a climate of fear prevails, many civil society leaders have been forced into exile in order to avoid arrests, violent attacks and assassination attempts. Enforced disappearances of human rights defenders are also a concern. For example, Marie-Claudette Kwizera, treasurer of a prominent human rights organisation, Iteka League, was allegedly abducted by the National Intelligence Services on 10 December 2015 and remains unaccounted for.


Peaceful Assembly in Burundi

Even though article 32 of Burundi’s constitution protects the right to peaceful assembly, public demonstrations in Burundi have become almost impossible in the wake of the sustained use of excessive force by security forces.

Even though article 32 of Burundi’s constitution protects the right to peaceful assembly, public demonstrations in Burundi have become almost impossible in the wake of the sustained use of excessive force by security forces. Peaceful demonstrations in April 2015 against an extension of the president’s mandate sparked a brutal assault by police on demonstrators, during which they were recorded using live ammunition, shooting people at point blank range and even shooting demonstrators in the back as they ran away. Other threats to the freedom of assembly come from a regressive public gatherings law which prevents spontaneous gatherings, and impunity for frequent assaults on demonstrators by non-state actors, including by the ruling party’s youth wing Imbonerakure.

Expression in Burundi

Prior to the crackdown on free media in 2015, Burundi’s World Press Freedom Ranking was already a lowly 142nd, having been as high as 72nd a decade earlier.

Prior to the crackdown on free media in 2015, Burundi’s World Press Freedom Ranking was already a lowly 142nd, having been as high as 72nd a decade earlier. In a clear violation of constitutional protections, the government has stamped out most if not all independent journalism in Burundi through the closure of radio stations and attacks on individual journalists. As traditional media have been closed off, reporters have formed a new online reporting collective, SOS Médias Burundi which continues to provide reports on human rights violations within the country through social media channels. With Internet penetration at just 1.4%, for most Burundians news other than state propaganda is hard to access.