Pierre Claver Mbonimpa, president of the Association for the Protection of Human Rights and Detained Persons (APRODH)

Despite years of armed conflict, Burundi has one of the Great Lakes region’s most active independent civil society movements. As it moves toward elections in 2015, however, we see an increasingly tense political climate, with activists under threat. The recent arrest of a leading human rights defender on questionable grounds is a troubling sign of the political elite’s attempts to tighten its hold on power in a country where political violence is still a reality. It requires a strong public reaction by Burundi’s international partners, including France, one of the key players.

Pierre Claver Mbonimpa, president of the Association for the Protection of Human Rights and Detained Persons (Association pour la protection des droits humains et des personnes détenues, APRODH), was arrested in the capital, Bujumbura, on May 15. After questioning Mbonimpa, prosecuting officials charged him with endangering internal and external state security for remarks made on the radio 10 days earlier, and using false documents.

The remarks and documents relate to allegations that young Burundians were being armed and sent for military training in neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo. A confidential UN cable, leaked in April, also alleged that weapons and uniforms were being distributed to the Imbonerakure, the youth league of the ruling party, by members of the security forces.

On May 26 a pre-trial chamber of the high court in Bujumbura ruled that Mbonimpa should remain in pre-trial detention. He has now been in prison for two weeks.

Mbonimpa, 66, knows Mpimba Central Prison in Bujumbura well: he is both a former police officer and a former prisoner. Following his experience of prison life in the 1990s, he founded APRODH to defend the rights of prisoners and other victims of human rights abuse. The organization now works across Burundi, documenting human rights abuses, campaigning for justice, and promoting human rights.

Human Rights Watch, which has a longstanding presence in Burundi, has seen at close hand the extraordinary impact of APRODH’s work, and of Mbonimpa’s interventions on behalf of victims. APRODH is the first port of call for people whose relatives have been arrested, forcibly disappeared, or killed. A source of unfailing support, it represents for many Burundians the only hope of obtaining justice.

Mbonimpa has faced state harassment many times before. After controversial elections in 2010, which were boycotted by most opposition parties and in which incumbent Pierre Nkurunziza was the sole presidential candidate, the government increasingly labelled activists and independent journalists as opposition mouthpieces. In 2012 Human Rights Watch released a report on political killings after the elections. APRODH published a similar report during the same period. Mbonimpa was often at the forefront of denouncing these killings and demanding justice for their families. When state agents were suspected of involvement in political violence, he fearlessly called the government to account. His courage, and that of other Burundian activists, elicited repeated harassment, intimidation, threats, and questioning by the authorities.

His imprisonment is among many troubling signs of repression. Authorities have repeatedly disrupted or blocked opposition party meetings in recent months. On March 8, police arrested scores of people, most of them members of the opposition Movement for Solidarity and Democracy (Mouvement pour la solidarité et la démocratie, MSD). Some were detained in connection with a clash between MSD members and the police, others arbitrarily. After a summary trial that lasted one day, the Bujumbura high court on March 21 sentenced 21 people to life imprisonment and 24 others to prison terms of 5 to 10 years. Meanwhile the Imbonerakure remains active in the violent suppression of opposition activities and harassment of dissidents and journalists. Police officers kill unarmed civilians with impunity.

The charges against Mbonimpa are extreme and his detention seems politically motivated, a drastic and desperate attempt to muzzle Burundi’s civil society. Such groups – often a thorn in the government’s side – are expected to play a key role in exposing abuses, inequalities, and graft in the run-up to the 2015 elections.

Mbonimpa, who has received several international awards for his human rights work, should be released immediately. If necessary, judicial authorities can pursue their investigations and legal processes while he is free.

Although international actors in Burundi recognize Mbonimpa as a man of integrity and courage, uncompromising in his beliefs and his determination to obtain justice, diplomatic responses to his arrest have not been vigorous enough. It is time for donor governments and other international actors engaged in Burundi to call publicly and loudly for Mbonimpa’s release. Governments should convey to the Burundian government the strength of international support for this champion of human rights. If not, the 2015 elections will usher in open season on Burundi’s remaining activists and journalists.