Burundi authorities and ruling party members have used fear and repression against the political opposition and the last remaining independent organizations and media ahead of the country’s general elections, Human Rights Watch said on Monday. Widespread impunity for local authorities, security forces, and members of the ruling party’s youth league, the Imbonerakure, prevail, as campaigning opens on April 27, 2020 for the elections scheduled to begin on May 20.
The election will take place following confirmation on March 31 of the country’s first Covid-19 cases. The president’s spokesperson said on April 7, in reference to the pandemic, that elections will go ahead because “[Burundians] are a people blessed by God.” Health authorities have blocked journalists from accessing a Covid-19 press conference, which could indicate government attempts to suppress information about the pandemic.
“Violence and repression have been the hallmark of politics in Burundi since 2015, and as elections approach and the Covid-19 pandemic unfolds, tensions are rising,” said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “There is little doubt that these elections will be accompanied by more abuses, as Burundian officials and members of the Imbonerakure are using violence with near-total impunity to allow the ruling party to entrench its hold on power.”
Human Rights Watch conducted phone interviews between November 2019 and April 2020 with more than 25 people, including victims, witnesses, members of civil society groups, police, and ruling party sources, who described abuses in 6 of Burundi’s 18 provinces. Human Rights Watch also documented killings, disappearances, arbitrary arrests, and threats and harassment against real or perceived political opponents over the last six months.
Reports from media and human rights defenders confirmed the abuses. Several human rights observers told Human Rights Watch that these kinds of abuses are not limited to these six provinces. Between January and March, Ligue Iteka, an exiled Burundian human rights organization, documented 67 killings, including 14 extrajudicial executions, 6 disappearances, 15 cases of gender-based violence, 23 cases of torture, and 204 arbitrary arrests. Although to a much lesser extent, violence against ruling party members and youths – including killings – has also been reported.
Since President Pierre Nkurunziza’s decision to run for a controversial third term triggered a serious human rights crisis five years ago, confirming details of abuse has become increasingly difficult, as fear has engulfed the country and the authorities have intensified efforts to silence the media and activists, Human Rights Watch said.
On April 11, two Health Ministry officials blocked four journalists from attending a Covid-19 news conference in Bujumbura. “They told us we are enemies of the nation, and that we are not allowed to go in,” one journalist told Human Rights Watch. He said officials told them that only Radio Télévision Nationale du Burundi (RTNB), Rema FM, and Mashariki TV – all close to the ruling party – were allowed to enter. According to the Burundian Union of Journalists, on April 9, a journalist from Radio Isanganiro and his driver were “abused” by some Imbonerakure members, who deflated the tires of their vehicle, while he was investigating an attack on an opposition member.
A human rights observer told Human Rights Watch on April 2 that he had been forced into hiding after investigating the killing of a representative of the opposition National Congress for Freedom (Congrès national pour la liberté, CNL), on March 16 in Bujumbura Rural province. “Ruling party members accused me of sharing the information with exiled human rights defenders and got the [provincial] prosecutor to issue multiple summons … so I’ve had to go into hiding,” he said. He was informed on April 8 that an arrest warrant had been issued against him.
In Nyamurenza commune, Ngozi province, a man said he was beaten by a group of Imbonerakure members armed with bats and clubs the evening of February 9, when he tried to intervene as they harassed his neighbor. “I screamed, fell down, and felt blood oozing out of my head,” he said. “I thought I was going to die…. They wouldn’t give me water…. I heard them say: ‘Don’t take him to hospital; let him die.’”
His neighbors eventually convinced the youths to let them take him to a hospital, but when the victim and his wife tried to file a complaint against the local Imbonerakure chief the next day, the police commissioner instead arrested his wife and several other witnesses.
Human Rights Watch, local media, and other rights organizations have documented the appearance of dead bodies in various parts of the country, generally showing signs of violence, and buried by local officials and Imbonerakure members before they are identified.
On November 15, Marie-Claire Niyongere, the deputy leader of the women’s wing of the CNL in Kiganda commune, Muramvya province, was found dead in a forest with injuries to her neck and genitals, media reported. A local administrator said she was sexually assaulted before being killed.
Little information has been released about several major security incidents in recent months. Between February 19 and 23, reports of skirmishes between security forces and alleged “criminals” in western Bujumbura Rural province emerged as photos and videos circulated online showing detained people and dead bodies surrounded by police and local residents. Police said 22 “armed criminals” were killed and 6 others arrested, and 2 policemen were killed, but several investigations suggest that many of the victims were killed after capture. On February 22, a police source warned Human Rights Watch that Imbonerakure members and demobilized soldiers from other parts of the country were simulating an attack to set the stage for a crackdown and justify a subsequent wave of arrests of CNL members.
The conviction on January 30 after a flawed trial of four Iwacu journalists who were arrested while going to report on fighting between security forces and the rebel group RED-Tabara in October 2019 underscores the dangers of investigating security incidents, Human Rights Watch said.
In addition to threatening public statements by senior government officials, the restrictive 2018 press law and a new code of conduct for journalists during elections have further constrained the media’s ability to publish information of public interest.
Although the East African Community will send an election observation mission, the government has still not signed a working agreement with the African Union-mandated human rights observers. In recent years, the government has attempted to shield itself from international scrutiny by blocking independent monitors, denying access to the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Burundi, and shutting down the UN Human Rights Office in Burundi.
The Burundian authorities should immediately and publicly order officials and Imbonerakure members to stop intimidating, beating, illegally detaining, and ill-treating people. They should investigate and prosecute the crimes documented and restore conditions for free and fair elections, which includes ensuring that the media and civil society can work freely, Human Rights Watch said. Anyone unlawfully detained, including human rights defenders and journalists, should be immediately and unconditionally released. Tensions may be exacerbated by the pandemic, and accurate information about measures to contain the virus should be provided.
On April 10, 2020, Human Rights Watch sent its key recent findings to the minister for external relations and international cooperation, with the ministers for the interior and patriotic formation, justice, human rights, social affairs and gender, and public security in copy, but received no response.
“Government officials, through their actions and their statements, are sending a clear message to the media ahead of the elections that human rights abuses must be hidden, not exposed,” Mudge said. “Burundi’s donors and partners should take a strong public stance against the government’s measures to clamp down on free expression and quash dissent. The UN and others should make clear that there will be consequences for those responsible for abuses, including through targeted sanctions.”