Donors meeting May 24-25 with the Burundian government should provide support for justice reform, but also urge the government to end impunity for serious human rights abuses, Human Rights Watch said today.

In addition, Human Rights Watch called on Burundi’s international donors – including the United States, the United Kingdom, and the European Commission – to fund needed changes in Burundi’s healthcare system to ensure poor patients are not detained in hospitals for not paying their bills.

On May 24, donors will meet with Burundian authorities in the capital Bujumbura to discuss the government’s Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP) and its Priority Action Plan, which hold that strengthening the rule of law and the legal system is essential for lasting peace in Burundi.

“Support for justice in Burundi requires funds for judicial reforms, but financial support is just one part of the picture,” said Alison Des Forges, senior Africa advisor to Human Rights Watch. “Donors also need to press the government to end impunity for killings, torture and other serious crimes.”

In the last year, the government has shown little political will to prosecute such grave abuses as the killing of 31 civilians in Muyinga province in July and August 2006, or the use of torture by agents of the intelligence service. Nor has the government made any progress in negotiating transitional justice mechanisms with the United Nations. The proposed mechanisms, which include a truth commission and a special tribunal, are to address crimes committed during years of civil conflict, including genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Donors should urge the government to begin prompt prosecutions of outstanding recent cases and to come to terms with the United Nations in establishing transitional justice mechanisms in accordance with international principles.

Donors should also give priority to assisting the government to provide legal assistance for all children in conflict with the law and better conditions for those in prison. In a report released in March, Human Rights Watch documented how children in conflict with the law in Burundi face serious abuses in a criminal justice system that treats them as adults.

In addition, donors should assist the government in developing a healthcare system that will assure the poor fair access to care and that will end the practice of detaining in hospital those too poor to pay their bills.

“Donors should ensure that their funds and their influence work to improve living conditions and to assure human rights for the people of Burundi,” said Des Forges.


Killings in Muyinga

In July and August 2006, 31 civilians were killed or “disappeared” while in official custody in Muyinga province in northern Burundi. According to witnesses, soldiers killed many of these persons who had spent weeks in detention at a military camp after being questioned by intelligence agents and threw the bodies in a nearby river. Administrative officials, including the governor of Muyinga, denied that killings had taken place, but bodies found in the river confirmed the account.

Judicial authorities arrested two soldiers and an intelligence agent in September, but have not yet brought them to trial. On October 14, a judicial commission issued arrest warrants for five other suspects, including the commander of the Fourth Military Region, Colonel Vital Bangirinama, but the warrants were never executed and Colonel Bangirinama remains on active duty. Meanwhile, one of the prosecutors involved in the investigation was transferred to another post, allegedly for his own security.

After months of inaction, the Minister of Justice established another judicial commission in February, but its conclusions have not been made public and no arrests have taken place.

“The killings in Muyinga present a real test of the government’s commitment to establishing rule of law and ending impunity,” said Des Forges. “This is not about financial means, but about the will to see justice done for the killings of civilians.”

Torture by intelligence agents

Since the current government came to power in 2005, Human Rights Watch and Burundian human rights organizations have documented the use of torture by agents of the National Intelligence Service (Service National de Renseignements, SNR). In the last month, Human Rights Watch has investigated allegations that SNR agents have tortured and otherwise abused three alleged supporters of Hussein Radjabu, former president of the ruling CNDD-FDD party (Conseil National pour la Défense de la Démocratie - Forces pour la Défense de la Démocratie). Radjabu himself has been charged with endangering state security and is awaiting trial in Mpimba central prison.

One victim said agents had placed pieces of wood between his fingers and then twisted them together, causing the flesh to rip. He showed a Human Rights Watch researcher wounds consistent with this complaint. He also claimed to have been forced to stand for two hours with a five-liter bottle of water attached to his testicles.

In September, three persons detained on charges of plotting against the state filed complaints alleging torture by intelligence agents. As of the present, there have been no investigations or prosecutions in these or other cases of alleged torture.

Transitional justice

Since March 2006, Burundian and UN representatives have been trying without success to agree on plans for a truth and reconciliation commission and a special tribunal to try crimes committed during years of conflict.

The Arusha Accords of 2000, the first of several power-sharing agreements between belligerents, called for a truth and reconciliation commission, an international judicial commission of inquiry and an international criminal tribunal to deal with crimes committed during the conflict. The UN Security Council later dropped the plan for an international judicial commission of inquiry and in 2005 (Resolution 1606) called for a truth commission and a special chamber for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide within the Burundian justice system.

UN representatives sought, thus far unsuccessfully, to work out details of this proposal with the government of Burundi, which has balked at giving the prosecutor of the special court authority to decide which cases to bring to trial. The government seeks to ensure that only cases in which reconciliation failed or participants refused to cooperate would be sent to court. According to a May 5 statement, the ruling CNDD-FDD party favors reconciliation over prosecution for all crimes, a position that contravenes the international principle that those accused of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity must be prosecuted.

The release of some 3,000 detainees in January 2006 has increased the urgency of establishing mechanisms to try them and others still detained. The detainees, many of whom were charged with having committed violent crimes during the war, were released after they were categorized as political prisoners by a government commission created under the Arusha Accords. Burundian officials say those released have been granted only “provisional immunity” and will eventually be held accountable for alleged crimes before the truth and reconciliation commission or the tribunal.

Juvenile justice

Children in Burundi who find themselves in conflict with the law regularly fall victim to violations of their rights in the criminal justice and prison systems. Research carried out by Human Rights Watch showed that most children accused of crimes are not assisted by a lawyer. In prisons children lack adequate food and sanitary facilities. They are sometimes subject to physical and sexual abuse and they receive no organized education. Children mix with adult prisoners all day and in some cases during the night as well. Children released from prison receive no assistance in returning to their communities.

Proposed amendments to the criminal law, now being considered by the parliament, would raise the age of criminal responsibility from 13 to 15 years old, and would provide alternatives to incarceration. In order to improve the lot of children in conflict with the law, these proposed measures must be passed, implemented, and funded, presumably with some assistance by foreign donors. Proposed revisions to the criminal procedure code would require that all children be represented by counsel.

Indigent patients

In a report released in September 2006, Human Rights Watch documented how hundreds of patients were held for weeks or even months in hospitals because they lacked the money to pay their bills. In some cases, they were held in poor conditions and refused access to needed medical care.

The Burundian health sector is plagued not just by huge funding shortfalls but also by irregular payments of state subsidies to hospitals and by fraud and corruption. Hospitals short of cash resort to detention of poor patients in an effort to secure at least of some of the funds needed to continue operating.

On May 1, 2006, President Pierre Nkurunziza announced free healthcare for children under five and women giving birth, a measure meant to reduce maternal and neonatal mortality rates. This measure ended detentions for many women and small children, but other poor people (children older than five years old, women with health problems not related to pregnancy, and men) continue to experience problems in meeting medical expenses and to risk being detained in hospitals for non-payment of bills. As of December 19, 2006, there were 65 people detained at Roi Khaled Hospital in Bujumbura.

Burundi is currently receiving interim debt relief and has used some of the funds to eliminate user fees for maternal and pediatric healthcare. But apparently reflecting the relatively little importance given to health questions by the government, the budget for healthcare has actually been reduced from the US$15 million called for in 2006 to US$11 million set for 2007.

Existing insurance plans and assistance to the indigent do not function either fairly or efficiently, and in some communities do not function at all. The government has pledged to create a new community-based insurance scheme (mutuelles de santé) but has not indicated how the program would include the poor.

Resolving the issue of detention of insolvent patients in Burundi requires measures both to protect individuals from human rights abuses and to establish effective, equitable and transparent methods of financing healthcare. In both cases, it is the responsibility of the Burundian government to take action, but it is also incumbent upon the international community to apply pressure on the government of Burundi to do so, and to support efforts in that direction.