Commission of inquiry slams human rights abuses ahead of elections

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Fear, intimidation lurk ahead of 2020 elections

Less than a year ahead of Burundi’s presidential, parliamentary and local elections in 2020, the UN Commission of Inquiry on Burundi (CoI) concluded in its report, released on 4th September 2019, the existence of a climate of fear and intimidation for those who do not support the ruling party, CNDD-FDD. Members of its youth league, the Imbonerakure, agents of the National Intelligence Service and of the police, and local authorities continue to commit serious human rights violations against Burundian citizens.

Mr. Doudou Diène, Chair of the CoI explained:

“It is extremely dangerous to speak out critically in Burundi today.”

“The stifling of such voices is what allows the country to present an illusion of calm,” added Commissioner Asuagbor, but “it is a ‘calm’ based on terror,” said Commissioner Hampson, “as shown by the continued commission of crimes against humanity and the very serious human rights violations that we have documented.”

The National Independent Electoral Commission (CENI) on 28th June 2019, presented the timetable for the 2020 elections. The presidential, legislative and communal council elections will be held on 20th May 2020. Elections for senators will be held on 20th July 2020, while those of the chiefs of zones and neighbourhoods will be held on 24th August 2020. In August, the government called on opposition members in exile to return to Burundi and take part in 2020 general elections. Vice-President Gaston Sindimwo made this announcement after members of the National Council for respect of the Arusha Agreement (CNARED), an alliance of opposition leaders in exile, expressed their intention to return. Opposition party National Congress for Liberty (CNL) said more than 20 of its offices across the country have been vandalised since March 2019. They allege that the perpetrators went unpunished or were arrested and later freed without charges.

In separate developments, controversy surrounds the killing of two opposition party members on 11th July 2019 while in police custody. According to civil society groups and independent media, the two men were killed in cold blood by a police officer in front of a crowd in Gihanga commune, Bubanza province in what CSOs referred to as an extra judicial execution. The police however accused the two men of having belonged to a group of "bandits" who threatened the region for months and killed police officers.

In August 2019, tensions continued to run high between members of the ruling CNDD-FDD party and those of the National Congress for Liberty (CNL) opposition party in Mubimbi commune. At least one person was killed and 10 others wounded after fighting occurred between the two groups on the nights of 25th and 27th August. As previously reported on the Monitor, supporters of the two parties have previously been involved in violent clashes which left two people dead in April 2019.

CSOs and HRDs continue to face persecution

Burundi’s government suspended the country's last independent civil rights group, PARCEM (Word and Action for Awakening Consciences and the Evolution of Mentalities) accusing the organisation of "disturbing peace and public order." PARCEM’s activities "are suspended" indefinitely, according to a document signed by the Interior Minister Pascal Barandagiye, on 3rd June 2019. According to Barandagiye, the organisation “worked on tarnishing the country's image and its leaders and on disturbing peace and public order despite several warnings”. As previously documented, PARCEM was one of the few remaining civil society organisations operating in Burundi, and had previously had some of its human rights defenders arrested and charged in 2017 because of their human rights work.

On 17th July 2019, the Burundian Court of Appeal of Ntahangwa deliberated on the case of the human rights defender Germain Rukuki, , confirming his sentence of 32 years in prison. The deliberation took place in a public hearing without Germain and without his defence being notified. On 22nd July, six days after the decision was issued, they were finally informed. As previously documented, on 26th April 2018, Rukuki was sentenced to 32 years in prison after he was found guilty of several charges, including “rebellion, breach of State security, participation in an insurrection, and attack on the Head of State". His arrest, prosecution and sentencing have since been condemned by UN experts and CSOs as they are linked to his work in defending human rights.

Refugees fear forceful repatriation

Burundian refugees in Tanzania’s Nyarugusu camp say that the administration has threatened them with forced repatriation. The refugees told the BBC that the head of the camp, Jumanne Singani, asked them to return voluntarily before they were forced back. The Tanzanian government however denied these allegations. Tanzanian Interior Minister Kangi Lugola and his Burundian counterpart, Pascal Barandagiye,signed an agreement on repatriation on 24th August 2019 which stipulates that as of October,it would return Burundian refugees at the rate of 2,000 a week from several camps in western Tanzania. The UNHCR issued a statement that insisted any returnees should go home voluntarily. This deal to begin repatriating almost 200,000 Burundi refugees from Tanzania has sparked anxiety among the displaced, with individuals considering an appeal to the United Nations and at least one civil society group considering a lawsuit over any forced return.

Expression

The BBC is closing its office and operations in Burundi until further notice, after efforts to resolve issues with the authorities failed. As previously documented, in March 2019, the government banned BBC transmissions and anyone in the country from providing information to the BBC, after accusing it of airing a documentary damaging the country's reputation.

Dozens of protesters demonstrated in Bujumbura on 8th June 2019 against "Western media"who they blamed for giving a media platform to the political opposition. Radio France Internationale (RFI), TV5 Monde and Le Monde were specifically targeted. These outlets conducted an interview with Marguerite Barankitse, a human rights activist living abroad and opposed to the Burundian regime. In a press release issued on 3rd June 2019, Burundi’s media regulator CNC accused Radio RFI of airing unbalanced information in the interview with Barankitse, as she testified to the human rights violations committed in Burundi and denounced the weak reactions from African States and the international community. The CNC then indicated that it would carefully analyse the professional misconduct committed by RFI and promised to impose sanctions against it.

In separate developments, on 3rd July 2019, Eric Nshimirimana, head of the ruling party youth league, Imbonerakure, accused of atrocities, was appointed by President Nkurunziza to lead its state-run broadcaster. Opposition parties described the move as a danger to press freedom, while Human Rights Watch (HRW) called it "a blow to all victims of abuse perpetrated by the Imbonerakure.”

The Burundian authorities continue to show no interest in solving the disappearance of Jean Bigirimana, an investigative reporter for the independent news website Iwacu, who went missing three years ago, on 22nd July 2016. On the third anniversary of his disappearance, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) urged them to carry out DNA tests on two bodies that were found shortly after his disappearance.