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Burundi: Work With U.N. on Justice and Reconciliation

Releases of Detainees Underline Need for Speedy Justice

Burundian authorities and United Nations experts, due to meet Monday, should ensure the speedy establishment of mechanisms to address grave violations of international law committed in political and ethnic conflicts in this central African nation, Human Rights Watch said today.

A delegation of U.N. legal experts will work with representatives of the Burundian government from March 27 to March 31 to craft the framework for a truth and reconciliation commission and a special judicial chamber within the Burundian judicial system.

“After decades of killing, it is time for the victims to see justice done,” said Alison Des Forges, senior adviser to the Africa division at Human Rights Watch. “Burundian and international experts can make that happen by agreeing quickly on how to set up mechanisms to deal with war crimes and other violations of international law.”

The government’s release since January 2006 of some 3,000 detainees has increased the urgency of establishing mechanisms to try them and others still detained. The detainees, many of whom were charged with violent crimes during Burundi’s 10-year civil war, were released after they were categorized as political prisoners by a government commission created under the 2000 Arusha Accords governing the transitional post-war period. According to Burundian officials, those released have been granted “provisional immunity” but will eventually be held accountable for any crimes they are accused of by the special court or a truth and reconciliation commission.

Some victims have protested the releases, saying those freed may never face either the commission or the court. Other victims have expressed fears that those released could threaten survivors or witnesses to their crimes. The Burundian human rights organization Ligue Iteka and other such groups have challenged the constitutionality of the detainee releases in court.

In a February 2 statement, the Burundian government said that reconciliation should be the primary objective in efforts at accountability, with justice called into play only where “pardon is shown to be impossible.”

However, Human Rights Watch believes that those most responsible for such grave violations of international law as genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity must be prosecuted in fair trials conducted according to international standards of due process. The mandate of the truth and reconciliation commission should make clear that those persons accused of leading roles in such crimes will be dealt with by the special court.

Since 1962, Burundi, where Hutu are in the majority but Tutsi have historically held power, has seen several periods of widespread killing on an ethnic basis. During a decade of civil war following the assassination of President Melchior Ndadaye in October 1993, all parties committed massive war crimes, including the slaughter of more than 100,000 civilians. A United Nations commission of inquiry in 1995 called the massacre of Tutsi following Ndadaye’s murder a genocide, but no international court was established to try alleged perpetrators.

“Given the expectations and anxieties about justice and reconciliation in Burundi, negotiators bear a heavy responsibility to produce a firm timetable for action by the end of the week,” said Des Forges. “All the fine words aside, it is only by setting up workable mechanisms that accountability and justice can finally be ensured.”

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