Police try to disperse protesters in the Burundian capital, Bujumbura on May 4, 2015.

© 2015 Reuters

On May 5 the Constitutional Court in Burundi ruled that President Pierre Nkurunziza’s decision to run for a third term in office was not contrary to the country’s constitution. The ruling – controversial after the court’s vice president revealed coercion and threats by authorities – removed a legal obstacle to Nkurunziza’s bid for a third term. But his attempt to cling to power has unleashed a wave of public protest, the government response to which appears to be spinning out of control.

Regardless of the rights or wrongs of the “third term question,” Burundians have a right to voice opinions about their leaders and to demonstrate peacefully without fear of being gunned down by the police.

After a brief lull over the weekend, demonstrations resumed for a second week in the capital, Bujumbura. In the past two days, at least two people have died and several others have been hospitalized with injuries from bullets and grenade shrapnel – adding to the steady rise in fatalities and grave injuries since clashes between protesters and police erupted on April 26. Unless the Burundian authorities take immediate measures to rein in disproportionate force by the police and abuses by members of the youth league of the ruling party, the toll may keep increasing.

It’s difficult to verify the details of clashes in Bujumbura’s worst-affected suburbs. Incidents flare up in different areas at the same time, and it has become hard to move around – even for Burundian journalists. Several have been threatened, beaten, or arrested simply for reporting or taking photos. Police have almost sealed off some of the most volatile areas and have pushed back protesters who tried to head toward the center of town.

As tensions keep rising, nerves are fraying. Some demonstrators seem to be getting aggressive too; several policemen have been injured. Residents of some areas are choosing to stay indoors, either blocked by demonstrators who won’t let them leave their neighborhoods or afraid of being caught up in the violence.

While the street clashes are generating wide media coverage, what the vivid images don’t show are the several hundred people arrested since protests began. Most are believed to be in police custody, with unconfirmed reports that some have been ill-treated. Others are held by the intelligence services, with no regard for due process. 

Burundi’s first vice president has announced that those arrested could be released – but only if the demonstrators call off their protests. International standards and basic rule of law do not allow people to be detained for use as bargaining chips in this way. Indeed such detentions are inherently arbitrary and unlawful. Yet that seems to be what the government is offering.

Already the government has shut down one of the country’s most popular radio stations and imposed severe restrictions on two others. Using the threat of unlawful detention to implement a ban on demonstrations would be another serious blow to freedom of expression and one that risks turning back the clock of Burundi’s hard won democratic gains.