When the United Nations Peacebuilding Commission meets with representatives of the Burundian government tomorrow, this new UN body designed to promote recovery for countries after armed conflicts should emphasize the crucial need for human rights protection in Burundi, Human Rights Watch said today.
The human rights situation in Burundi has deteriorated since a meeting in October, when Commission members underlined the importance of the rule of law and respect for human rights in consolidating peace. Burundi and Sierra Leone are the first countries to benefit from the support of the new commission, which began operations in June. The commission has recommended that Burundi receive funding from the new Peacebuilding Fund.
“As the Peacebuilding Commission has recognized, real peace must be built upon a solid foundation of law and human rights,” said Alison Des Forges, senior Africa advisor at Human Rights Watch. “Burundian authorities have done little to bring officials implicated in killings and torture to justice, but instead have cracked down on journalists and others who point out government failings.”
Killings in Muyinga go unpunished
In July, some 30 civilians in official custody in Muyinga province “disappeared” and are presumed dead. According to witnesses and survivors, soldiers killed many of the detainees after they had been questioned by intelligence agents. The killers threw the bodies in a nearby river. Bodies found floating in the river confirmed this allegation.
After domestic and international outcries, judicial authorities arrested two soldiers and an intelligence agent in September, but have not yet brought them to trial. Nor have authorities executed five warrants issued on October 14 for the arrest of other suspects, including the commander of the Fourth Military Region, Colonel Vital Bangirinama. Colonel Bangirinama remains on active duty, while one of the prosecutors involved in the investigation was transferred to another post, supposedly for his own security. At the end of November, local residents in Muyinga found at least five more bodies in the river and say they were warned by local officials not to talk to human rights investigators about the discovery.
Alleged coup plotters tortured in detention
In early August, agents of the intelligence service arrested seven persons, including a former president and a former vice president of Burundi, on charges of planning a coup. The detainees are awaiting trial. Agents of the intelligence service allegedly tortured three of those arrested. The three filed complaints about the abuse, but no arrests have been made.
Arbitrary Arrests of Journalists and Civil Society Activists
In the past seven months, the government has arrested three journalists and two civil society activists on excessively broad and poorly substantiated charges. All are currently in jail in Bujumbura.
In May, peace activist Terence Nahimana was arrested on charges of threatening state security after he wrote a letter to Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza, questioning delays in peace talks with the last rebel group then fighting the government. Although the letter caused no unrest, authorities contend that it could have incited the public against them. After more than six months of pre-trial detention, Nahimana was brought to trial and is currently awaiting a verdict.
On September 22, Gabriel Rufyiri, president of the Observatory for the Fight Against Corruption and Economic Embezzlement (l'Observatoire de Lutte contre la Corruption et les Malversations Économiques, or OLUCOME) was arrested and charged with having defamed a businessman by reporting his allegedly illegal dealings. In the last decade, OLUCOME has documented hundreds of cases of corruption and embezzlement by government authorities and businessmen in Burundi. In a highly publicized recent case, OLUCOME objected to the apparently irregular terms of sale of a presidential airplane for less than the maximum bid of US$2 million.
Human Rights Watch opposes the use of criminal defamation laws in all circumstances as an unwarranted restriction on the right to freedom of expression. Additionally, Rufyiri’s pre-trial detention has not been confirmed by a judge within 30 days, as is required by Burundian law. No date has been set for the trial.
In September, Burundian police filed a complaint against three private radio stations – Radio Publique Africaine (RPA), Isanganiro and Bonesha – for having broadcast that a fake attack was being prepared against the residences of the Burundian president and the president of the dominant party, National Council for the Defense of Democracy-
Forces for the Defense of Democracy (Conseil national pour la défense de la démocratie-Forces pour la défense de la démocratie, or CNDD-FDD).
The fake attack was supposed to strengthen accusations against those charged with planning the coup described above. In accord with Burundian law, the radios allocated air time to permit a police spokesman to refute the account. The matter lay dormant until late November, when authorities arrested Serge Nibizi and Domitile Kiramvu of Radio Publique Africaine (RPA) on charges of broadcasting information relating to state security.
Although the charges were supposedly linked to the September complaint, neither of these journalists had participated in the broadcasts in question. In addition, Nibizi was charged with broadcasting information relative to a judicial inquiry, but his report was commentary upon an article previously published in Intumwa, a newspaper close to the CNDD-FDD. Journalists from Intumwa were not arrested for their original publication of the information. A week after these arrests, Mathais Manirakiza was also arrested for broadcasting information relative to state security on Radio Isanganiro in connection with the September complaint. Two other journalists of RPA were interrogated by the authorities in connection with reports about the alleged coup plot. The trial of the three journalists is now set for December 14.
“Killings and torture in Burundi must stop, the perpetrators of past crimes must be punished, and freedom of speech must be respected,” said Des Forges. “Commission members should stress that recovery after armed conflicts requires protection of human rights.”