Another activist silenced: Germain Rukuki sentenced to 32 years in prison
Referendum entrenches ruling party’s power
On 17th May, Burundians voted in a controversial constitutional referendum that could entrench the position of the ruling CNDD-FDD Party and allow President Pierre Nkurunziza to remain in power until 2035. The referendum drew fierce criticism from opposition parties, civil society, and diplomatic mission as being as a violation of the 2000 Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement that brought an end to the country’s civil war and which stipulate a 10-year limit for presidents.
According to official results, which opposition parties are challenging in Burundi's Constitutional Court, 73 percent voted in favour of the proposed amendments. The plebiscite had a turnout of over 96 percent, although local media reported that many people may have voted out of fear, with one woman telling Iwacu News:
“I’m going to vote to save my life”.
After the referendum, Human Rights Watch (HRW) published a report documenting extensive violations by state actors and members of the Imbonerakure youth militia in the lead up to the elections, including the use of sexual violence and extra-judicial killings.
HRW confirmed 19 cases of violations around the elections since 12th December 2017, all apparently to pressure Burundians to vote 'yes' on the referendum. The violations included the beating to death of one person who did not show a receipt proving he had registered to vote; the beating of another person in detention that may have resulted in his death; and arrests, beatings, and mistreatment of many others. Most of those attacked were members of the political opposition party - Forces Nationales de Libération (National Liberation Front).
Human rights defender Germain Rukuki convicted
The draconian 32-year prison sentence imposed on human rights activist Germain Rukiki sends a clear message to all who seek to raise the alarm about abuse in #Burundi: you are not safe. https://t.co/Dsetd8ztyE— joanne mariner (@jgmariner) April 30, 2018
On 26th April 2018, human rights defender Germain Rukuki was found guilty on several charges, including “rebellion, breach of State security, participation in an insurrection, and attack on the Head of State". He was sentenced to 32 years in prison. His July 2017 arrest and the charges against him have been condemned by UN experts as “evidently linked to his work in defending human rights”.
According to the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH), all of the judicial proceedings against Rukuki were marred by numerous irregularities. No concrete or convincing proof of his guilt was ever presented. Drissa Traoré, FIDH Vice-President, stated in regards to the court proceedings that:
"Tried behind closed doors within the Ngozi prison, charges brought last minute without investigation, lawyers prevented from accessing parts of the file, Germain Rukuki’s harsh sentence clearly illustrates the Burundian authorities’ willingness to silence all human rights defenders in the country".
As reported previously on the CIVICUS Monitor, three other human rights defenders were sentenced in absentia to ten years in March 2018. Meanwhile Nestor Nibitanga, a former regional observer with the human rights association - L’ Association Burundaise pour la Protection des Droits Humains et des Personnes Détenues (APRODH) - has been held in pre-trial detention since his arrest in November 2017.
Media outlets restricted during referendum
In the run-up to the referendum, the National Communication Council (NCC) restricted the few independent media outlets that were still accessible in the country. BBC radio operations were suspended on 4th May 2018, after a guest on the radio made remarks that the NCC considered as “inappropriate, exaggerated, non-verified, damaging the reputation of the head of state, to ethnic hatred, to political conflict and civil disobedience”.
Voice of America (VOA) was shut down on the same day for allegedly broadcasting on a banned frequency. In the same statement, the NCC also warned Radio France Internationale over recent “untruthful and partisan” remarks, and accused the Burundian station Isangiro of poor verification of sources. On 11th April, Iwacu News was ordered to suspend its online comments section over allegations of "violation of professional standards”.