Pierre Claver Mbonimpa waves at the crowd in front of the Appeals Court in Bujumbura on June 4, 2014.

© 2014 Teddy Mazina

(Nairobi) – A court in Burundi on September 29, 2014, provisionally released the detained human rights activist, Pierre Claver Mbonimpa, on medical grounds. 

Mbonimpa, 66, is 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. He 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 charged with endangering state security and using false documents. 

“The provisional release of Pierre Claver Mbonimpa on medical grounds is good news,” said Anneke Van Woudenberg, Africa advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “He is not a threat to Burundi, but rather a great asset. The Burundian authorities should urgently take the next step and drop all charges against him.”

The court had repeatedly turned down his lawyer’s requests for his provisional release on grounds of old age and ill-health, even after Mbonimpa became seriously ill in late August and was hospitalized. On September 15, the court ordered a medical commission to report on his condition. On September 26, the commission’s report concluding that Mbonimpa had “several cardiovascular risk factors” was presented to the judges. It listed a host of serious medical problems and eight medications he is taking.

Mbonimpa’s case is very significant in Burundi. He has earned huge public respect and admiration, as illustrated in a Human Rights Watch video by large crowds of supporters at his first court appearance. He is well known outside Burundi and has received international awards in recognition of his work to defend the rights of the most vulnerable.

Mbonimpa’s arrest is part of a broader government crackdown against perceived critics and opponents with elections planned for 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.

On September 23, US President Barack Obama publicly called for Mbonimpa’s release. The European Parliament on September 18 urged the Burundian government to immediately and unconditionally release Mbonimpa. Previously, several governments and embassies, including the USA, the European Union, France, the United Kingdom, and Belgium, expressed concern about Mbonimpa’s case, particularly following Mbonimpa’s hospitalization.

“The supposed charges against Mbonimpa did not amount to a credible criminal offense and he should never have been arrested and detained in the first place,” Van Woudenberg said. “The Burundian authorities should bring this matter to a close, drop the charges against him, and let him recover his health so he can continue his extraordinary work defending vulnerable Burundians.”