Human rights defenders convicted as Burundi prepares for controversial referendum

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. 


Three activists sentenced to ten years imprisonment

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 facing life 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”.
Detained activist awaiting trial

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.


Citizens allegedly being forced to register for referendum

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.

Concerns raised on Burundi at UN Human Rights Council

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".