Burundi: President silences critics and “illegally” taxes citizens in lead up to referendum

There have been widespread demonstrations since the 2015 political crisis and President Pierre Nkurunziza’s decision to stand for a third term. As reported previously on the CIVICUS Monitor, the authorities have cracked down on independent civil society groups and media, with many human rights defenders fleeing the country for their safety. There is an ongoing investigation by the International Criminal Court concerning documented crimes against humanity that occurred between 26th April 2015 and 26th October 2017.

Expression

At least 60 people were arrested in mid-January 2018 for publicly advocating that citizens reject the proposed constitutional amendment which would extend President Pierre Nkurunziza’s term in office beyond 2020, when his current term will end. A May 2018 referendum will determine whether the amendment - which would allow Nkurunziza to serve another two seven-year terms after 2020 - will be adopted. Civil society and opposition groups believe the vote is unlikely to be fair. Burundi's government has banned anyone from campaigning for or against the proposed changes to the constitution.

The head of Burundi’s Forum for Strengthening Civil Society, Vital Nshirimana, said that:

“So far dozens of people, about 60 people were arrested [...] and this is one of the signs that the referendum will not be fair since those campaigning against are arrested, while those campaigning for 'yes' are not arrested”.

Peaceful assembly

Police agents arrested seven nurses in Ruyigi province on 13th January 2018. According to eyewitness reports, the nurses were waving protest signs against what they believe is "illegal" taxation, where the authorities deduct from their wages to fund the 2020 elections. The police accused the nurses of holding an unauthorised protest. All seven were subsequently released on 17th January 2018.

The government of Burundi began deducting from salaries to fund the country's 2020 general election after international donors stopped funding following the heavily-disputed 2015 election, the effect of which has contributed to the current socio-political crisis. President Pierre Nkurunziza won a third term in July 2015, despite being limited to two under the 2000 Arusha Agreement. The U.S. State Department, European Union and African Union have all criticised the 2015 electoral process.

A statement in early February from the Ministers of Home Affairs and Finances suggested that civil servants earning 50,000 to 500,000 Burundian francs (28 to 280 USD) would be expected to pay 5,000 francs (2.80 USD) of their salary each month, while anyone earning above one million Burundian francs (560 USD) would face deductions of one month's salary a year. In a letter addressed to the Speaker of the National Assembly on 18th January 2018, a group of 25 parliamentarians from the independent Amizero y’Abarundi coalition called the additional taxes “illegal and unconstitutional”.

Association

On 5th January 2018, three human rights defenders from Parole et actions pour le réveil des consciences et de l'évolution des mentalités (PARCEM), one of the few remaining civil society organisations operating in Burundi, reportedly face lengthy prison terms of between 20 and 25 years in prison. PARCEM Provincial Representative Emmanuel Nshimirimana and two co-workers, Aime Constat Gatore and Marius Nizigiyimana, were arrested in June 2017 on charges of threatening state security and using fake documents, allegations they have refuted. Their trial began on 1st December 2017 and a verdict is expected on 26th February 2018.

In regards to the trial, Amnesty International urged the Burundian authorities to:

“Immediately and unconditionally release these prisoners of conscience, as well as all other detainees held solely on the grounds of their peaceful human rights work. While they remain in detention, the Burundian authorities must ensure [they] have full access to the lawyers of their choice and their family members”.