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Election period sees clampdown on freedoms; Outgoing president Nkurunziza dies suddenly

Association

On 10th March 2020, two months ahead of Burundi's presidential, parliamentary and municipal elections in May 2020, the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Burundi launched an appeal to the international community, including the UN Security Council and regional institutions, to join forces to encourage the Burundian Government to reopen the democratic, civil and political space in the country. The commission noted that these are not only basic human rights, but are also an absolute requirement for the holding of free, transparent and credible elections in a peaceful climate. They highlighted political instability as a risk factor, noting that the ruling party’s CNDD-FDD youth league, the "Imbonerakure", continued to carry out human rights violations against members of the political opposition and their families. 

Meanwhile, even as the commission made the international appeal, opposition members continued to face hurdles and even blatant attacks and threats to their lives. On the day of the appeal, it was reported that the National Independent Electoral Commission had rejected the applications of four presidential candidates whose files did not allegedly meet the requirements of the Constitution and the Electoral Code. Some of the irregularities noted by the commission included suspicious signatures on some documents, inconsistent declaration of nationality and incomplete applications. The affected candidates; Jacques Bigirimana of FNL party, Anicet Niyonkuru of CDP, Valentin Kavakure of FPN-Imboneza and Domitien Ndayizeye of Kira-Burundi coalition said they would appeal to the Constitutional Court.

A few days later, on 16th March 2020, Methuselah Nahishakiye, the head of the CNL opposition party, was shot dead in the Migera locality of Kabezi commune, in Bujumbura Province. Family members of the deceased revealed that he had confided to them that the youth of the ruling party, the Imbonerakure, had been threatening to kill him. According to his relatives, Mr Nahishakiye was murdered for political reasons, as allegations were floated about a meeting that had been held days before by local leaders and the Imbonerakure to plan his murder.

As campaigns came to an end ahead of the elections, Aljazeera reported on 17th May 2020 that campaigns were marred by deadly clashes, violence, and hate speech. 

On the day of the elections, 20th May 2020, the president of the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi stated that the conditions to perform credible and free elections were not met. The commission based their position upon their documentation of human rights violations including the right to life, liberty and physical integrity, violations of civil liberties, and violations of economic and civil rights, and noted that, especially in the electoral process, opposition parties have historically been unable to realise their rights. They also highlighted that international election observers were not allowed into the country, while even though observers from the East Africa community were allowed, they were required to go into 14 days’ quarantine because of the COVID-19 epidemic.

On their part, the National Council for Liberty (CNL), Burundi’s main opposition party, also cast doubt on the openness of the electoral process as they announced that three of their members, including a candidate for the election of communal councillors and two political observers, were arrested in Mutimbuzi commune of Bujumbura province in the west of Burundi. They were accused of possessing illegal weapons. A CNL communal representative rejected the formal accusations and said that the three CNL members were arrested for political reasons. He added that members of the Imbonerakure also arrested two other CNL members in the Gatumba area of the same commune. 

The following day, on 21st May 2020, before the announcement of the official results of Burundi’s elections, the main opposition leader, Agathon Rwasa, claimed an early win in the country’s presidential election, stating that polling officers from his National Council for Liberty (CNL) party said he was winning. However, the National Independent Electoral Commission (CENI) declared that the official results would not be ready before Monday 25th May 2020. On 25th May, CENI announced partial results for the elections, declaring victory for the ruling CNDD-FDD party’s candidate, Evariste Ndayishimiye, by close to 69% of the vote. His chief competitor Agathon Rwasa of the opposition CNL party was credited with 24%. CNL accused the CENI of colluding with the ruling party to keep opposition election observers away from the polls and indicated that they would demand a vote recount. After the total tallying of votes was done, governing party candidate Evariste Ndayishimiye was declared the winner after garnering 67% of the votes, although this was still disputed by the opposition.

Two days after the elections, the CNL party spokesperson said that a total of 200 of its members were arrested in provinces across the country on election day. He added that the arrests continued into Thursday 21st May. According to CNL, most of the arrested persons were observers at the polling stations.

Days after the elections, on 8th June 2020, the government of Burundi announced the sudden death of outgoing president Pierre Nkurunziza after suffering heart failure. On 12th June, the Constitutional Court ordered that he incoming president, Evariste Ndayishimiye who was set to officially start his 7 year term on 20th August 2020, be sworn in as soon as possible to avoid a power vacuum in the country. The exact date of his swearing in was not clear at the time of writing this update.

Nkurunziza came to power in 2005 after being elected by the Burundian parliament and as previously reported on the CIVICUS Monitor, his controversial bid for a third term in 2015 plunged the country into crisis. During his tenure, his government embarked on a systematic crack down on media, journalists and Civil Society organisations, while Human Rights Defenders bore the brunt by suffering arbitrary detentions and unfair jail sentences for their human rights work.

Expression

On 20th May 2020 – the day of the elections – authorities blocked social media platforms (including Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter). The only way to access these platforms was through Virtual Private Networks (VPN). The platforms were blocked amid fears of violence during and after the elections, as voters were ordered to return to their homes immediately after casting their votes. The president's communication advisor however refuted claims that the internet had been cut off, although Bujumbura residents confirmed that they were unable to access the sites, except through VPN.

In separate incidents, journalists continued to face judicial harassment by undertaking their peaceful journalistic activities. On 14th January 2020, radio journalist Blaise Pascal Karaumiye of Radio Isaganiro was arrested after he reported on the misuse of public funds in Burundi. He had done a story focusing on a meeting organised by the governor of Karusi province requiring the administrative officials not to interfere in the management of “Sangwe” cooperatives. He was allegedly interrogated without a lawyer.

In a similar incident, on 30th January 2020, the High Court of Bubanza, in western Burundi, convicted four journalists: Christine Kamikazi, Agnès Ndirubusa, Egide Harerimana, and Térence Mpozenzi of the independent newspaper Iwacu and sentenced them to two and a half years in prison and a fine of one million Burundian Francs each (approximately US$530). Although they were charged with complicity in threatening the internal security of the state, they were ultimately convicted of attempting to commit the crime, although they were not allowed to defend themselves in court. The court acquitted their driver, Adolphe Masabarakiza, who had already been released from pretrial detention. On 6th May 2020, the four journalists appeared before the Court of Appeal of Ntahangwa, which adjourned their trial for further deliberation. A month later, on 5th June, the Court of Appeal rejected their appeal, thus leaving the four journalists behind bars.

CPJ sub-Saharan Africa Representative Muthoki Mumo said:

“Burundian authorities should never have arrested the four detained Iwacu journalists; rejecting their appeal only shows that authorities are willing to double-down on the country’s hostility toward the free press… It is deeply disappointing that, despite the transparently retaliatory nature of their case, the court rejected their appeal and the journalists remain behind bars amid the COVID-19 pandemic, when imprisonment poses an unacceptable health risk.”

As previously reported on the CIVICUS Monitor, the four were arrested on 22nd October 2019 while travelling to cover unrest which erupted after gunmen crossed into the country from the Democratic Republic of Congo and clashed with security forces.