Burundi should formally request that Tanzania extradite Col. Vital Bangirinama to ensure he comes home to face justice over the 2006 Muyinga massacre, Human Rights Watch said today. Burundi must also ensure that Bangirinama, a Burundian military officer accused of involvement in the summary execution of at least 31 civilians in Muyinga province, receives a trial in accordance with international standards and that he and any witnesses are guaranteed protection.
“Justice for those killed in Muyinga has been on hold for far too long,” said Alison Des Forges, senior advisor in the Africa division at Human Rights Watch. “Tanzania is willing to entertain any request for extradition but Burundian officials have yet to complete the necessary paper work.”
Human Rights Watch noted that Bangirinama has been implicated since mid-2006 in the killings but the Burundi authorities had failed to arrest or charge him. An arrest warrant issued for him in October 2006 was never acted upon. Three weeks after judicial officials issued another warrant for his arrest in late December 2007, Bangirinama fled to Tanzania.
Human Rights Watch called on the Burundian government to do everything possible to expedite prosecution of those already charged with the Muyinga killings and to continue investigating other high-ranking government officials also suspected of involvement in the killings. Burundi also has a responsibility to take all efforts to protect suspects and witnesses who may be vulnerable to intimidation or threats because of the high-profile nature of the allegations, and those implicated.
Several judicial inquiries have been held during the past 18 months into the Muyinga killings, brought to light by Burundian human rights organizations. On December 24, 2007, the military prosecutor transmitted a new arrest warrant to Bangirinama’s superiors at the Office of the Chief of Staff of the Burundian Armed Forces. Officers there failed to implement the warrant promptly and may even have colluded with him, facilitating his flight to Tanzania in mid-January.
Shortly before his flight, Bangirinama contacted a local radio station and a Burundian human rights organization to confess to the killings and to claim that his own life was now threatened by those who had ordered the crime. Once in Tanzania, Bangirinama publicly implicated a number of Burundian civilian and military authorities in the killings and the subsequent cover-up, including President Peter Nkurunziza. Bangirinama remains at liberty in Tanzania.
On January 28, military and police authorities acknowledged that Bangirinama had fled. They said that a warrant for his arrest would be sent to Interpol, the international police organization, and that they would request his extradition from Tanzania.
On January 29, the Tanzanian embassy in Bujumbura assured a Human Rights Watch researcher that Tanzania was prepared to consider a Burundian request for extradition. Any extradition request should be determined by a fair procedure that respects the due process rights of the suspect.
“Thousands of soldiers and police in Burundi are escaping punishment for their crimes, and the Muyinga case is just one ugly example,” said Des Forges. “The Muyinga victims deserve to have their day in court and that means bringing to justice Bangirinama and anyone who worked with him or gave him orders.”
In July 2006, following reports that residents from Muyinga province had disappeared, bodies were sighted by locals in the nearby Ruvubu river. Researchers from Human Rights Watch and Burundian human rights organizations, and United Nations human rights officers saw at least six decomposing bodies in the water – four tied together, one headless, and one with deep wounds on its neck.
Under pressure from UN human rights officers and local and international human rights organizations, prosecutors investigated the case. They determined that one or more agents of the Burundian intelligence service (Service Nationale de Renseignement, SNR) had arrested a number of Muyinga residents on suspicion of participation in the rebel National Liberation Forces movement (Forces Nationales de la Liberation, FNL) and had detained them at the Muyinga military camp. Soldiers under the command of Bangirinama had taken the detainees from the camp at night, transported them to the banks of the Ruvubu river in a vehicle belonging to Bangirinama, and had killed them and thrown their bodies in the river.
The military prosecutor arrested two soldiers, Eliezer Manirambona and Leonard Npirampeba, and charged them with murder in early September 2006. Shortly after, the civilian prosecutor arrested the provincial chief of the intelligence service, Dominique Surwavuba, and charged him with abduction and complicity in murder. The soldiers remain in pretrial detention, but Surwavuba was released by the attorney general in May 2007 and sent back to his post in Muyinga in December, despite protests from human rights advocates.
The Ministry of Justice formed a judicial commission to continue investigations in mid-September 2006. Based on its findings, the president of the Appeals Court of Ngozi issued arrest warrants for Bangirinama, the military commander of the region, and for four local civilian authorities in October. None of them was arrested.
In an interview in October 2006, President Nkurunziza told Human Rights Watch researchers that he had intervened to prevent Bangirinama’s arrest because he feared an arrest attempt would provoke an armed confrontation between police and soldiers. He did insist that justice would be done for the killings.
After the UN Human Rights Commission Independent Expert on Human Rights in Burundi pressed the minister of justice for action in January 2007, the minister set up another investigatory commission in February 2007, but its report was never made public.
In July, Bangirinama was transferred from Muyinga to a post at the Office of the Chief of Staff of the Burundian Armed Forces. A witness to the killings who had provided information to judicial authorities told a Human Rights Watch researcher that he was threatened by Bangirinama in Bujumbura in September 2007. UN human rights officers had also received reports that he had harassed and threatened the prosecutor of Muyinga as well as families of victims and other witnesses who had provided testimony to judicial authorities.
Bangirinama has told journalists that he accepts responsibility for the killings and is prepared to face “equitable justice,” but that he fears for his life if he returns to be tried in Burundi.