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(Nairobi) - Burundi is cracking down on civil society, media, and opposition parties in the wake of troubled local and national elections from May through September 2010, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The 69-page report, "Closing Doors?: The Narrowing of Democratic Space in Burundi," documents abuses including torture, arbitrary arrests, banning of opposition activities, and harassment of civil society groups. Human Rights Watch called on the government to end the abuses and to strengthen institutional mechanisms to promote accountability by government officials and security forces.

"With the elections over, Burundi has a perfect opportunity to reach out to its critics and to work with them to build a more inclusive, rights-respecting state," said Rona Peligal, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "But instead we are seeing arrests of journalists and opposition party members, and harassment of civil society, crushing hopes that this could be a new beginning for Burundi."

The report is based on more than 100 interviews with journalists, civil society activists, opposition party members, government officials, diplomats, and election monitors. It documents the Burundian authorities' increasing efforts to silence dissenting voices before, during, and since the elections.

The government recognized the outcome of an illegal "party congress" held by dissident members of the main opposition party, the National Liberation Forces (FNL), at which party leaders were replaced with individuals compliant with the ruling party. It has prohibited a coalition of opposition parties, Alliance of Democrats for Change (ADC-Ikibiri), from carrying out activities. Journalists and civil society activists who express critical views are labeled political opponents and subjected to arrests and threats.

The government has shown some indications of openness, Human Rights Watch said. It recently expressed willingness to engage in a dialogue with Human Rights Watch for the first time since expelling Human Rights Watch's Burundi-based researcher in June, as the elections were getting under way. It also has taken some steps toward establishing institutional mechanisms to ensure accountability for human rights abuses.

However, overall, restrictions on public expression and political activity have increased, beginning shortly after opposition parties rejected the results of the May communal, or municipal, elections. After the ruling National Council for the Defense of Democracy-Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD) won by a large margin, opposition parties contended that there had been massive fraud and boycotted the subsequent legislative and presidential elections. Interior Minister Edouard Nduwimana responded by banning all activities by parties not taking part in the presidential elections. The boycott left the incumbent president, Pierre Nkurunziza, the only presidential candidate; he was elected to a second term in June.

During the elections, government authorities arrested several hundred opposition members. Some had participated in violent activities, including a series of grenade attacks during the presidential and legislative campaigns. But others were arbitrarily arrested. Some of those detained told Human Rights Watch and other organizations that they had been tortured. The government illegally imposed travel restrictions on at least two opposition members.

The government also targeted journalists and civil society. Four journalists were arrested between July and November. One of them, Jean Claude Kavumbagu, remains in prison on treason charges for publishing an article that criticized the state security services. Journalists and activists involved in a campaign calling for justice for Ernest Manirumva, an anti-corruption campaigner killed in April 2009, were subjected to death threats and surveillance, particularly after the Bujumbura Appeals Court held a first public hearing on the case in July.

The climate of intimidation continued after the elections. Police spokesperson Pierre Channel Ntarabaganyi threatened on October 20 to arrest Pierre Claver Mbonimpa, president of the Association for the Protection of Human Rights and Detained Persons (APRODH), after Mbonimpa accused the police of committing extrajudicial killings.

In September, intelligence officials arrested and detained Faustin Ndikumana, a staff member at African Public Radio (RPA), on questionable charges. Seven other RPA staff members were interrogated by judicial authorities in September and October, in what appears to be a pattern of harassment.

The space for political activity by opposition parties remains limited. Following the elections, some FNL and other opposition members retreated into the forest areas that were rebel bases during Burundi's 1993-2009 civil war, and across the border into the Democratic Republic of Congo. Since September, they have carried out sporadic attacks on police and military targets and on civilians associated with CNDD-FDD. In response, the authorities have arrested several dozen opposition party members on charges related to "participation in armed groups," in some cases without making specific allegations of wrongdoing.

Both ruling party and opposition members have been killed during and after the elections in what appeared to be politically motivated attacks. Since September, at least 18 bodies have been found in the Rusizi river, near Bujumbura. They included the bodies of three FNL members who had been arrested in October, leading the United Nations and the European Union to add their voices to that of APRODH, the Burundian human rights organization, to condemn what appear to be extrajudicial executions.

"The re-emergence of armed groups who are committing abuses, including killing civilians, poses real security challenges for the government," Peligal said. "But the threat of armed groups does not justify extrajudicial killings and arbitrary arrests."

The report identifies some positive developments. Some government officials have maintained a constructive dialogue with civil society and with opposition parties, Human Rights Watch said. In June, a court in Muramvya province provided a rare example of judicial independence by convicting three police officers for ill-treatment of alleged FNL members and other civilians in 2007, although the police officers have still not been taken into custody.

Judicial authorities have promised to investigate allegations of torture and extrajudicial executions. The government also established an ombudsman to handle public complaints against state officials. But the person appointed to the job is a high-ranking ruling party member, which raises concerns about his ability to remain neutral in addressing complaints of a political nature.

Foreign donor governments have encouraged Burundi to respect the rights of journalists and civil society activists, Human Rights Watch said. Other countries in the region have encouraged Burundi to carry through on its promises to build stronger institutional mechanisms to protect human rights. However, frustrated by the opposition's decision to boycott elections in which the international community had invested heavily, many of these countries have not actively urged the government to respect the rights of opposition parties.

"If Burundi wants the world to see it as a democracy, its leaders need to avoid the temptation to govern as a de facto one-party state, and instead guarantee space for the political opposition and other dissident voices," Peligal said. "International donors and Burundi's neighbors should make it clear to Burundi's ruling party that it must work with its critics, rather than silence them."

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