Burundian police and judicial officials should immediately release the scores of persons still detained solely as suspected members of a movement long opposed to the government, Human Rights Watch said today. They should also instruct security forces to cease such arrests.
More than 300 alleged members of the Party for the Liberation of the Hutu People-National Liberation Forces (Parti pour la Libération du Peuple Hutu-Forces Nationales pour la Libération, Palipehutu-FNL), many of them civilians, have been arrested throughout Burundi since mid-April. Police released 102 detainees on May 29, 2008, in what they called a “gesture of good faith from the government” and said that they may release others soon.
“Some people have been in detention for weeks, even though Burundian law clearly prohibits holding anyone without charge for more than seven days,” said Alison Des Forges, senior adviser to Human Rights Watch’s Africa division. “Officials should release civilian detainees, or charge them if there is evidence that they committed crimes.”
On April 17, 2008 the FNL, a military wing of the party, bombarded the capital city of Bujumbura in violation of a September 2006 ceasefire agreement. Officials immediately began rounding up FNL supporters. On May 26, the FNL and the government signed a new ceasefire, bringing combat to a halt once again.
Membership of the Palipehutu-FNL is not illegal, although recruiting combatants and disseminating FNL propaganda are violations of the ceasefire agreement. Some detainees are FNL combatants, whose release will be addressed in the course of peace talks. But a number of detained young people, including several minors, belong to the FNL’s civilian youth wing, the Patriotic Hutu Youth (Jeunesse Patriotique Hutu, JPH). Other detainees told human rights monitors that they belong to opposition political parties other than the FNL.
Dozens of detainees are crowded into irregular detention sites, including military installations and camps of the Rapid Mobile Intervention Group (Groupement Mobile d’Intervention Rapide, GMIR), a unit of the police that is not authorized to detain civilians.
While police and military spokespersons have confirmed that FNL membership alone can not be the basis for a lawful arrest, no steps are being taken to ensure that the law is being properly implemented.
Some officials have acknowledged that the continued detention of FNL members is illegal. One judicial police officer in Bujumbura told Human Rights Watch: “Many of the alleged FNL detainees have committed no crimes, [but] we can’t release them. It’s political.”
A provincial governor said that he had ordered the arrest of four civilians who had once been FNL combatants in order to “intimidate” them into not rejoining the rebels. He acknowledged, “You’re right that from the point of view of human rights, it’s not legal, but administrators are obliged to preserve order.”
Soldiers and police have beaten and otherwise mistreated many detainees. Of 17 detainees selected at random from those held at a Bujumbura jail, Human Rights Watch found that nine had been beaten (seven by police officers and two by soldiers) and one had been subject to death threats by intelligence agents.
One detainee recounted: “I was arrested by a military officer and beaten by four soldiers at a military camp. They beat me on my legs, arms, stomach and back with batons. My whole body swelled up.” One young woman, a member of the JPH arrested in Bujumbura Rurale province, spent four days at a military camp where she was beaten with the butt of a Kalashnikov on her legs, back, arms, and head before being transferred to a civilian jail. A Human Rights Watch researcher observed that her entire body was heavily bruised. Several other detainees said they had been punched and kicked by police officers, while another said he had spent five days and nights in handcuffs.
Police use irregular security forces in making some arrests. Many irregulars were once combatants from the 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, CNDD-FDD), the former rebel group that is now the dominant political force in the Burundian government.
According to one detainee interviewed by Human Rights Watch, demobilized combatants in civilian clothing and armed with pistols aided police officers in arresting him. “They said I was FNL,” he recounted, “and put me in handcuffs. They removed their belts and beat me over the head.” One month after the arrest, the marks of a beating on his head were clearly visible to a Human Rights Watch researcher.
Another detainee arrested by demobilized combatants said he saw these same men, armed with pistols, grenades, and Kalashnikovs, regularly threaten JPH members in his neighborhood. A local official confirmed that a group of demobilized CNDD-FDD combatants works closely with the police on occasion.
According to high-ranking police officials, detainees will remain behind bars until negotiations result in an agreement on the release of political prisoners. Given the slow progress in previous ceasefire talks, that could take weeks or months. A member of the international facilitation team said there was no reason civilian FNL members could not be released immediately.
“Police and judicial officials have the duty to keep order, but they can’t do that by violating the law themselves,” said Des Forges. “Locking up persons without charge or having them arrested by civilians who have no legitimate authority is no way to enforce the law.”
Following more than a decade of conflict, the Palipehutu-FNL and the Burundian government signed a ceasefire agreement in September 2006, but efforts at implementation stalled, in part because of disagreement over the release of political prisoners. In July 2007, the FNL abandoned talks and returned to the bush, protesting the alleged bias of the South African facilitator. While both sides continued to give lip service to the ceasefire agreement, it was violated a number of times in late 2007 and early 2008, particularly by the FNL. FNL combatants attacked government-protected camps housing persons claiming to be former FNL combatants who left the movement in search of peace. They killed several police officers and soldiers, apparently to capture their weapons, and also pillaged the homes of rural residents, forcing thousands to flee.
As the FNL stepped up its activities, unidentified assailants attacked people thought to have been former FNL combatants and JPH members in Bujumbura. A prominent civilian FNL supporter and his 12-year-old son were shot and killed in January 2008, as were the aunt and uncle of an alleged FNL combatant. In both cases, witnesses said assailants were demobilized combatants from the CNDD-FDD. No one has been arrested for either killing.
Several CNDD-FDD local officials and agents of the National Intelligence Service (Service National du Renseignement, SNR) were also killed in early 2008, in what local authorities interpreted as revenge killings carried out by the FNL.
According to several FNL and JPH supporters, they were so afraid of the demobilized combatants that some went into hiding while others rejoined – or joined for the first time – FNL combat units. One student and former FNL combatant said: “I made a promise to my church ... that I would give up combat, but in Bujumbura I am afraid I will be killed by the demobilized guys from the CNDD-FDD. I feel I would be more secure if I were to go back and join the FNL in the bush.”
In late March 2008, FNL leaders based in Tanzania announced they would return to Bujumbura to discuss implementing the September 2006 ceasefire if the parliament would adopt a law guaranteeing them “provisional immunity” from arrest. The government had granted similar guarantees in the past, including for members of the CNDD-FDD. The “provisional immunity” covers ordinary crimes, but not grave violations of international humanitarian law like war crimes or crimes against humanity.
The Burundian parliament has been in a political deadlock and has passed no laws in months. Unable to obtain the “provisional immunity” they sought, the FNL bombarded Bujumbura on April 17. The Burundian army successfully counterattacked and pushed the FNL back into the hills surrounding Bujumbura. After suffering heavy losses during a month of fighting, and in response to a May 5 ultimatum from Tanzania demanding that FNL leaders leave the country within 10 days, the FNL resumed negotiations on May 16 and signed a new ceasefire on May 26.
Arrests of alleged FNL members began immediately following the attacks. Although police in some provinces gradually began to free detainees whom they recognized had committed no crimes, in other provinces the arrests continued even after the FNL delegation returned to negotiations.