(Bujumbura) – Scores of people have been killed in political attacks in Burundi since the end of 2010, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The killings, some by state agents and members of the ruling party, others by armed opposition groups, reflect widespread impunity, the inability of the state to protect its citizens, and an ineffective judiciary.
The 81-page report, “‘You Will Not Have Peace While You Are Living’: The Escalation of Political Violence in Burundi,” documents political killings stemming from the 2010 elections in Burundi. These killings, which peaked toward the middle of 2011, often took the form of tit-for-tat attacks by members of the ruling 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) and the opposition National Liberation Forces (Forces nationales de libération, FNL). In the vast majority of cases, justice has been denied to families of the victims.
The report also documents the Burundian government’s attempts to restrict independent media and civil society’s efforts to denounce the violence.
“The ruling party had a chance to foster a new beginning for Burundi following the 2010 elections,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Instead we have seen the systematic targeting of former rebel combatants and members of the political opposition. Many of those who refused to succumb to pressure to join the CNDD-FDD have paid with their lives.”
Human Rights Watch called on both the government and opposition groups to denounce killings by their members and supporters and take measures to prevent further violence. Human Rights Watch urged the government to address a pattern of killings and death threats against members or former members of opposition groups by members of the security forces, the intelligence services, and the CNDD-FDD’s youth group known as the imbonerakure.
The report is based on extensive research in Burundi from early 2011 to early 2012 and numerous interviews with victims, relatives of victims, and witnesses. It provides a detailed account of the most deadly attack during this period in the town of Gatumba, where at least 37 people were killed in a bar in September 2011.
The report also highlights numerous cases in which individuals were threatened, forced into hiding, and murdered as a result of their perceived political leanings. For example, Audace Vianney Habonarugira, a demobilized FNL combatant, was killed in July 2011. Days before he was killed he gave Human Rights Watch a step-by-step description of how he was being hunted across the country by police, military, and intelligence agents.
Members of the ruling party have also been victims of targeted killings. Pascal Ngendakumana and Albert Ntiranyibagira, two low-ranking CNDD-FDD officials, were killed in a bar in April 2011 by people believed to be FNL members. A young girl who happened to be with them was also killed.
Throughout early 2011 the government attempted to minimize the scale of the killings, claiming that most were the work of common criminals and that Burundi was at peace. But a sharp increase in violence beginning in July, followed by the September attack at Gatumba, made it impossible to maintain this line.
However, instead of making rigorous investigations and the prosecution of suspects a high priority, the government allowed the majority of those who carried out political killings to remain at large, even when witnesses identified some of the alleged attackers.
In one of the few cases in which suspects were brought to trial − the Gatumba attack − the proceedings were deeply flawed. Several defendants said in court that they had been tortured, but the judges did not appear to take this into account and did not order investigations into the torture allegations. In addition, the judges refused to call people requested by the defense to testify, including several senior police and intelligence agents who, according to the defendants, were involved in events leading up to the attack. The flaws in the proceedings led the lawyers for the 21 defendants to walk out of the courtroom. The trial was concluded in just a few days.
The report of a commission of inquiry set up by the government to investigate the Gatumba attack, completed in October, has not been made public.
“Even in a rare case in which people were prosecuted, serious irregularities undermined the fairness and credibility of the trial,” Bekele said. “This leaves people feeling that justice has not been done.”
The absence of thorough investigations and prosecutions has eroded public confidence in the judicial system and caused disillusionment among survivors of the violence and victims’ families, Human Rights Watch said. A survivor of the Gatumba attack told Human Rights Watch: “They [the authorities] often say there will be investigations, then nothing happens. We’re used to this.” This public lack of confidence in the police and judicial system risks hindering future investigations, as witnesses do not feel that the information they provide will be acted upon.
The government has harassed and intimidated journalists and civil society activists, accusing them of siding with the opposition when they reported on incidents of killings. Bob Rugurika, chief editor of a leading independent radio station African Public Radio (Radio Publique Africaine, RPA), was summoned to the public prosecutor’s office eight times between July and November 2011 to answer questions about RPA’s programs. The authorities accused him of disseminating information that “incites ethnic hatred” and “incites the population to civil disobedience.” He was not formally charged.
Pierre-Claver Mbonimpa, president of the human rights organization APRODH, was criticized by senior government officials for publicly speaking about rumors of a government plan to eliminate opposition members. In a letter in February, the interior minister accused him of undertaking “a quasi-campaign of disinformation, demonization and inciting the population to distrust the authorities” and threatened sanctions against his organization.
“The media and civil society in Burundi have the right to operate freely and to report on incidents of violence,” Bekele said. “At times, the government has seemed more focused on harassing journalists and human rights activists who denounced this violence than on addressing the violence itself and ensuring the people responsible are brought to justice.”
Human Rights Watch noted an improvement in the security situation in Burundi in 2012 and a decrease in the number of political killings.
“This is an opportunity for the government of Burundi to address the fundamental problems that led to the spiraling violence in 2011 and take effective action to prevent further killings,” Bekele said.