Human Rights Watch said on Friday that local authorities and members of the much-feared youth league of Burundi’s ruling party have extorted donations for the upcoming elections in 2020, in many cases by threat or force.
It said in a report that members of the youth league, the Imbonerakure, have blocked access to basic public services for people unable to present a receipt for the payment of the contribution.
The 54-page report, entitled “Our children remain hungry for pay”: Abuse related to contributions for the 2020 elections in Burundi, documents the campaign orchestrated by the ruling party, the National Council for Defense Democracy-Defense Forces of Democracy (CNDD-FDD), with the party youth league and local authorities to collect “voluntary” contributions from the population.
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Human Rights Watch found that people were forced to pay several times or pay more than the amount officially requested, or that they did not receive a receipt, which aggravated the situation.
“Local authorities and members of Imbonerakure exercise a terrifying level of control over the basic travel and activities of the population, such as buying food, consulting a doctor or accessing water “, said Lewis Mudge , director for Central Africa at Human Rights Watch. “The contribution to the elections has opened the door to uncontrolled abuses. “
Human Rights Watch said it interviewed more than 80 people, including 65 victims of abuse. The victims were from 13 of the country’s 18 provinces.
A government ordinance of December 2017 introduced the collection of contributions in various ways, including “voluntary” donations of Burundian francs (US $ 1.08) per household and Burundian francs ( US $ 0.54) per student of voting age, as well as direct deduction from the salaries of public sector workers and civil servants. But Imbonerakure members, who have no formal role in government or tax collection, resorted to violence and intimidation to extort money from Burundians.
They set up roadblocks to check receipts and restricted access to markets, schools, water pumps and administrative services for those who had not paid the contribution, Human Rights Watch said. Victims reported that Imbonerakure members in food distribution centers run by aid groups hit people, prevented them from receiving food or forcibly took food from them.
According to a 23-year-old man from Cankuzo province, who was forced to flee and leave his family behind, “They erected fences everywhere so that we can not access the water, go to market or just move without the receipt … I paid only to be able to live safely. To go to the market, I went through three roadblocks.“
Human Rights Watch documented dozens of cases in 2019 in which Imbonerakure members, sometimes acting with police or local authorities, were involved in killings , disappearances, arbitrary arrests and beatings of political opponents real or supposed.
Since the beginning of 2018, members of Imbonerakure, visibly emboldened by their role as collectors of contributions, have also intimidated, threatened and beat people to force them to give food, livestock and money to CNDD-FDD in power and participate in building local hotlines for the ruling party, according to Human Rights Watch research.
In October, four members of the Youth League were convicted of murdering an opposition member and sentenced to life imprisonment. However, the Imbonerakure, who are often described as having more power than the police, have largely escaped justice and have rarely been held responsible for the acts committed.
President Pierre Nkurunziza announced the cessation of collections in July 2019, saying that the goal had been almost achieved, but those who wish to continue contributing can do so. Human Rights Watch found that election contributions are still being collected, albeit on a smaller scale, as the Youth League and local authorities continue to collect other “donations” for the ruling party and others. local projects.
Election contributions, associated extortions and other abuses have had a significant impact on the lives of many Burundians, as more than 70 percent of the country’s 11 million people live below the poverty line, Human Rights said.
Imbonerakure members have strengthened their hold on many aspects of people’s lives, Human Rights Watch said. The degree of involvement with which an individual pays the contribution to elections or other contributions, attends rallies of the ruling party or takes part in the construction of party permanences has become a measure of allegiance to the CNDD-FDD.
Human Rights Watch called on the authorities to ensure that all Burundians, including the most vulnerable, have access to vital humanitarian assistance and that access to public services is not denied on the basis of actual or perceived political allegiances of individuals and groups. their contributions to the elections.
It said the government should bring to justice local authorities, police and Imbonerakure members involved in violations of the rights to life, security, food, freedom of movement, property and the lack of political discrimination, as well as the right not to be subjected to ill-treatment, adding that regional bodies should increase their oversight by ensuring that African Union human rights monitors are fully deployed in Burundi and gain unrestricted access to the country, Human Rights Watch said.
“With the increasing repression and the arbitrary and punitive financial requirements imposed on the population, there is a real risk of political tensions intensify in the May 2020 elections approach ,” concluded Lewis Mudge. ” The Burundian authorities should urgently master Imbonerakure, and investigate and prosecute against members Imbonerakure and local administrators in case of evidence of their involvement in extortion and abuse. “