Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) yesterday sent a very clear message to the Burundian authorities: leading human rights activist Pierre Claver Mbonimpa should be immediately and unconditionally released from detention.

Mbonimpa was arrested on May 15 after speaking on the radio about allegations that young Burundians were being armed and given military training in neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo. He was subsequently charged with endangering state security and using false documents.

The court turned down his lawyers’ requests for the 66-year-old’s provisional release on the grounds of old age and poor health, even after he became seriously ill in late August. He has now been in the hospital for three weeks, awaiting trial.

The MEPs’ resolution condemned Mbonimpa’s detention and deemed it “representative of the mounting risks facing human rights defenders” in Burundi. The resolution also called on the EU High Representative and the 28 EU Member States to ensure “a clear and principled EU policy vis a vis Burundi that addresses the on-going serious human rights violations” in the country.

Indeed, Mbonimpa’s arrest is part of a broader government crackdown against perceived critics and opponents as elections approach in 2015. Other activists, as well as independent journalists and members of opposition parties, have been repeatedly harassed, intimidated, and prevented from carrying out their activities. 

Mbonimpa is an exceptionally courageous man who has taken great risks to shine a light on human rights abuses in Burundi. He has earned huge public respect and admiration for his human rights work as 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), one of the main human rights groups in Burundi

The EU’s 2012 “Strategic Framework on human rights and democracy” would seem to have been designed to help people exactly like Mbonimpa, committing the EU to throwing its “full weight behind advocates of liberty, democracy, and human rights throughout the world”. Yet, despite this pledge, statements issued by the European External Action Service and EU Member States on his case have thus far been weak and have shamefully missed the key element the Parliament picked up: a clear call for his release.

In the days ahead, MEPs should ensure that there is adequate follow up to their resolution and leave no stone unturned until Mbonimpa is free. They should raise his case at every opportunity with Burundian authorities and insist that EU institutions and the 28 EU Member States do their utmost to secure Mbonimpa’s release.