(Nairobi) - Increasing human rights violations could undermine Burundi's electoral process unless the government takes immediate action, Human Rights Watch said today. Leaders of the ruling party and opposition groups should also issue clear instructions to their members that acts of violence will not be tolerated.
The situation began deteriorating in May, after 13 opposition parties rejected the results of Burundi's landmark district elections, claiming massive fraud. Twelve of them formed a coalition, the Alliance of Democrats for Change (ADC-Ikibiri), in early June and announced a boycott of the presidential elections of June 28, 2010. The government promptly declared the boycott "illegal." Incumbent President Pierre Nkurunziza was left as the sole presidential candidate. The coalition has also threatened to boycott legislative elections, scheduled for late July.
In the weeks leading up to the presidential election, the government imposed severe restrictions on the freedom of movement of opposition leaders, arrested dozens of opposition activists, and banned all opposition party meetings. Arrests continued after Monday's elections.
The elections were further marred by political violence that escalated with the kick-off of the presidential campaign on June 12, including nearly 100 grenade attacks, the killings of at least two ruling party activists and an opposition activist, and arson attacks on at least 35 local offices of the ruling party. While the grenade attacks and fires have mostly targeted the ruling party, the targets of the arrests and restrictions of movement are all members of the political opposition.
"Burundi is at a dangerous crossroads and clearly ill-intentioned people on both sides of the political divide are seeking to exploit recent tensions," said Rona Peligal, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "The government should end unnecessary restrictions on basic freedoms, and those fomenting violence should stop."
The government of Burundi should immediately restore civil and political rights to opposition members who are not charged with any crime, including the right to hold meetings and to travel, Human Rights Watch said. It should ensure the prompt release of opposition members against whom there is no evidence of criminal activity.
Human Rights Watch also called on the Burundian authorities to investigate all incidents of political violence and ensure that those responsible, regardless of their political affliation, are brought to justice.
Three prominent politicians - Pascaline Kampayano of the Union for Peace and Development (UPD), Charles Niyungeko of the National Council for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD), and Alice Nzomukunda of the Alliance for Democratic Renewal (ADR) - have been prevented from leaving Burundi since the opposition boycott began. Kampayano and Niyungeko were stopped at land borders by local border police, who gave no explanation other than that they had orders from their superiors. Nzomukunda was stopped at Bujumbura International Airport on June 27 when boarding a flight to Nairobi; her passport and ticket were confiscated. She said the police director general informed her that she could not travel because she was suspected of planning an illegal protest.
Several credible sources in Burundi's capital, Bujumbura, told Human Rights Watch that the government had ordered the police to restrict the movement of all major opposition leaders. Police officials contacted by Human Rights Watch would neither confirm nor deny these reports.
According to United Nations observers, at least 55 opposition activists were arrested between June 25 and June 28, including high-ranking members of the opposition National Liberation Forces (FNL) and Movement for Solidarity and Democracy (MSD). One journalist monitoring arrests told Human Rights Watch that as of June 29, at least 74 opposition activists were behind bars.
Some have been charged with serious crimes, such as "threatening state security," including Edouard Misago, a member of the FNL executive committee detained by the National Intelligence Service. Others have been accused of playing a role in the recent grenade attacks, which have killed at least 7 people and wounded at least 55 since June 11, or of possessing weapons, even though opposition parties have claimed that in some of these cases, no weapons were found.
Still others were accused of participating in "illegal meetings," including MSD Executive Secretary Odette Ntahiraja, who was held for several days, then freed. This followed a June 8 decision by Interior Minister Edouard Nduwimana that only parties participating in the presidential election could hold meetings or rallies, effectively only allowing the ruling party, National Council for the Defense of Democracy-Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD), to meet. Burundian law requires parties to provide advance notice of meetings to local officials; failure to do so can result in a fine, but does not provide grounds for arrest.
At least one detainee, in Ngozi province, has been charged simply with being "FNL." Another common charge is "inciting the population not to vote," which is not a crime under Burundian law.
"The opposition boycott and the recent grenade attacks don't justify this crackdown on human rights," Peligal said. "Nor is denying the basic human rights of opposition members likely to produce a solution to the political impasse. The authorities should free those who have been detained unless there is specific evidence linking them to a recognizable crime."
In the communal elections on May 24, the ruling party won 64 percent of the vote. International and national election observers stated that despite "irregularities," the elections were largely free and fair, while opposition parties claimed fraud. Those parties filed 36 distinct complaints with the provincial electoral commissions, including accusations of multiple voting, failure to publish vote tallies, and failure to follow required procedures for counting ballots. Most such complaints were dismissed by the provincial electoral commissions on the grounds that they did not significantly impact electoral outcomes.
In a June 1 news conference, the ministers of public security and defense accused "those contesting the election results" of "disrupting public order and security, in blatant violation of the law and the electoral code," the Burundian Press Agency (Agence Burundaise de Presse) reported. Nduwimana announced on June 8, "Every citizen has the right to elect and be elected, so for us, a political party which asks people not to take part in a vote is offending the law." During the following week, several ADC-Ikibiri members were arrested in Bujumbura after holding meetings with their members in the southern town of Rumonge.
As a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights, Burundi is required to respect basic civil and political rights of all people, including the rights of free association, peaceful assembly, and freedom of movement, which encompasses the right to leave one's country. Such rights can only be restricted by clear laws, for a legitimate reason, and in the least restrictive way possible, and without any discrimination, including with regard to political beliefs.
"Donor governments that have underwritten Burundi's peace process should engage urgently - but even-handedly - to prevent a further deterioration of the situation," Peligal said. "International diplomats have publicly criticized the opposition's decision to withdraw from the elections, but few have spoken out with equal vehemence against the government's draconian response."