The Burundian government should take immediate steps to end the climate of impunity that facilitates illegal detention, mistreatment and torture of individuals by the police, Human Rights Watch said in a new report released today.

The 42-page report, “Every Morning They Beat Me: Police Abuses in Burundi,” documents 21 cases of beatings and torture of civilians carried out in October 2007 by a special reserve unit known as Rapid Mobile Intervention Group (Groupement Mobile d’Intervention Rapide, GMIR) in Muramvya province. Various victims described to Human Rights Watch how they were arbitrarily arrested, beaten with clubs and batons, subjected to death threats and mock executions, and forced to pay large bribes in exchange for freedom.

“Many Burundians say they fear the police, and abuses by police officers are frequently reported not just in Muramvya but throughout the country,” said Alison Des Forges, Africa Division senior advisor at Human Rights Watch. “We recognize that authorities are working hard to properly train police officers, but the training must be reinforced by holding officers accountable for bad conduct.”

Normally based in Bujumbura, the GMIR officers were dispatched to Rutegama commune, Muramvya province, in order to address a supposed increase in armed banditry. They were also supposed to stop recruitment and propaganda by the Forces of National Liberation (Forces nationales de libération, FNL), a rebel group that signed a ceasefire agreement with the Burundian government in 2006 but later withdrew from implementation talks. The GMIR established an illegal detention site and arbitrarily arrested dozens of civilians in October 2007. They tortured and mistreated many of the detainees and also extorted bribes from a large number of them, victims told Human Rights Watch.

Detainees were accused of illegal possession of arms or being FNL members, although the latter is not a crime under the terms of the ceasefire agreement. In one case, 50 police officers armed with guns and grenade launchers arrested a man at 2 a.m. The man told Human Rights Watch that police said, “I had to show where I had hidden the weapons and that I would show them after I was given a good beating.” Another recounted, “One of the police put a pistol to my head, and another started digging a hole in the field right outside [the detention site]. They accused me of being a member of the FNL, and I denied it. They continued beating me to try to get me to admit it… Every morning for the next few days, they beat me.”

Burundi’s National Police, cobbled together in 2004 under a transitional government, includes former rebels, soldiers and gendarmes as well as police officers. The young police force received little training, which may account for some of the abuses. But lack of training is compounded by the government’s failure to investigate and prosecute abuses. Only two police officers have been convicted in 59 torture cases filed in the last two years.

In addition, politicians use some police officers for political purposes. A GMIR officer present at Rutegama told Human Rights Watch that the unit was sent to Muramvya “because the government thinks that people are abandoning the party in power, and that people won’t vote for them in 2010… They sent us there to intimidate the population, to win back the population by force.”

Judicial authorities in Muramvya belatedly initiated proceedings against two GMIR officers and a local police chief. They interrogated the suspects for the first time nearly two months after victims filed complaints.

“The Burundian government should ensure that victims of abuses in Muramvya have their day in court and have it promptly,” said Des Forges. “A government seeking to build democracy and human rights cannot tolerate police abusing rather than protecting the population.”