Space for civil society and citizen activism has been almost totally destroyed following a government crackdown in 2015 when citizens protested against the incumbent president’s bid for a third term. Many ordinary civilians and civil society activists have been killed, police have repeatedly used excessive force against protestors and detainees have been brutally tortured.read more
Three activists from PARCEM have been sentenced to ten years imprisonment for undermining state security. Human rights defender Germain Rukiki is facing a life sentence for his activism. Citizen are being forced to sign up to vote in the upcoming referendum to allow President Pierre Nkurunziza
to extend his term beyond 2020
A report by Human Rights Watch on Burundi in February 2018 noted that most leading civil society activists and many independent journalists remain in exile due to repeated threats from the authorities. In addition, the government has continued to restrict media and freedom of expression in the country.
On 9th March 2018, human rights defenders (HRD) Emmanuel Nshimirimana, Aime Constant Gatore and Marius Nizigiyimana, all members of Parole et Action pour le Reveil des Conscience et l’Evolution des mentalities (PARCEM), were sentenced in abstentia to ten years in prison on charges of undermining state security. The verdict was also announced without representation from the defendants' lawyers.
As noted on the CIVICUS Monitor, PARCEM is of the few remaining civil society organisations operating in Burundi. According to Amnesty International, the three HRDs were arrested in June 2017 and accused of recruiting youth members of opposition parties to report on human rights violations. PARCEM has denied this, stating that they were identifying these young people as part of preparations for a workshop which would bring together young activists from different political parties. PARCEM will appeal the sentence.
Human rights defender Germain Rukuki was expected to appear before the Ntahangwa High Court on 27th March 2018 for the second hearing of his trial, but this was abruptly postponed. On 3rd April, prosecutors sought a sentence of life imprisonment on charges of “assassination, destruction of public and private buildings, and participation in an insurrectionist movement" as well as “breaching the internal security of the State and rebellion”. The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders has raised a number of concerns around the judicial process, including the fact that he was interrogated without a lawyer. A final verdict is expected in a month’s time.
Rukiki was arrested on 13th July 2017, and the charges stem from his former involvement in L'Action des Chrétiens pour l'Abolition de la Torture au Burundi (ACAT-Burundi), a civil society organisation that the government has accused of being complicit in the 13th May 2015 failed coup attempt.
In March, CIVICUS raised his case at the UN Human Rights Council, declaring that:
“CIVICUS calls on the government of Burundi to immediately cease its attacks on human rights defenders and as a Member State of the Human Rights Council, to fully cooperate with the Commission of Inquiry and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights”.
The case against human rights defender Nestor Nibitanga is a worrying sign of continued repression against Human Rights Defenders in #Burundi. We urge @BurundiGov to release him and 4 other HRDs immediately. #FreeDefenders https://t.co/LNE5zoGfrJ pic.twitter.com/dUzMqRArmJ— AmnestyEasternAfrica (@AmnestyEARO) February 21, 2018
Another human rights defender Nestor Nibitanga remains in detention awaiting trial on charges of "threatening state security and rebellion". He was a former member of the deregistered Association for the Protection of Human Rights and Detained Persons and was arrested on 21st November 2017.
Police arrested him at his home in the Musinzira neighbourhood of Gitega. In a tweet on the day of his arrest, the police said several documents were seized as evidence. He was held by the National Intelligence Service in the capital Bujumbura without access to his lawyer until 4th December 2017, before being transferred to Murembwa central prison in Rumonge.
As mentioned previously on the CIVICUS Monitor, in May 2018 a referendum will be held on a constitutional amendment that would allow President Pierre Nkurunziza to serve another two, seven-year terms after 2020.
More than five million people have registered to vote in the 17th May constitutional referendum. While the government has touted this as a sign of confidence in the electoral process, opposition politicians claim that citizens are being forcibly enrolled in rural areas, with the police and the ruling party's Imbonerakure youth militia compelling people to register.
The president of the National Independent Electoral Commission reported that voter registration reached 112 percent but the coalition of opposition parties in exile CNARED described the results as "misleading and imaginary".
CNARED spokesperson Pancrace Cimpaye claimed that:
“People were registered by force, they were persecuted, some of them were denied access to the markets, schools and hospitals if they didn’t show the registration paper. They registered because they wanted to survive. This show how the records are fanciful and distorted”.
The highly controversial proposed constitutional amendment could fall afoul of the Arusha Peace Accords that helped to end the 1993-2006 civil war. The Accords stipulate a 10-year limit for ruling presidents, while the current constitution sets a limit of two, five-year mandates. When Nkurunziza ran for a third term in 2015 and won, his victory sparked a violent crisis in the country and forced more than 400,000 to flee.
During an Interactive Dialogue with the UN Human Rights Council on 13th March 2018, the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi denounced the deterioration of security and human rights in the country. Members of the Commission said that civic liberties continue to be restricted and members of civil society organisations continue to be harassed and arrested. During the 37th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein described Burundi as being among "the most prolific slaughterhouses of humans in recent times".
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.
Even though article 30 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 30 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.
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.