(Nairobi) – Burundian security forces should exercise restraint during search operations for illegal weapons in the capital, Bujumbura, and not use these operations as a license to kill.
President Pierre Nkurunziza warned on November 2, 2015, that anyone who failed to hand over weapons by November 7 would be “punished in accordance with the anti-terrorist law and fought like enemies of the nation.” He told security forces they could use all means at their disposal to find these weapons and re-establish security. Search operations began on November 8.
“Reckless and threatening speeches by the president and other ruling party officials have created panic,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The Burundian security forces have been responsible for numerous human rights violations in the past months, yet the authorities often just blame ‘criminals’ and ‘terrorists’ and ignore security officials’ deadly use of force.”
The president’s warning led many residents of Mutakura and Cibitoke neighborhoods to flee for fear of attack. Members of the ruling party youth league searched them as they left.
The son of leading human rights activist Pierre Claver Mbonimpa was shot dead on November 6, reportedly after being stopped by the police, and initial media reports indicate that unidentified assailants killed at least seven people in an attack on November 7 at a bar on the outskirts of the capital.
In the lead up to search operations, senior ruling party officials used inflammatory and apparently threatening language in public speeches and statements. In a speech to local officials on October 29, Senate President Révérien Ndikuriyo said: “Go tell them [those who have weapons]: If something happens to them, they shouldn’t say ‘if only we had known’…. The day when we give people the authorization to ‘work,’ it will finish and you will see what will happen.” He repeatedly used the word “gukora,” which means “to work” in the Kirundi language. The same word was used to incite people to mass violence before and during the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
Burundian authorities have the authority to conduct law enforcement and security operations to seize illegal weapons. However, under international law, security forces are obliged to ensure that they only use force that is proportionate to a legitimate threat. They should follow the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, which set out the limits on the use of force.
The speeches come on the heels of a spate of killings in Burundi, with more than 100 people killed since August, some by members of the security forces, in and around Bujumbura. The frequency and brutality of the killings have reached disturbing new levels.
Two of the deadliest attacks took place in the Bujumbura neighborhoods of Cibitoke and Mutakura on October 3, and Ngagara on October 13. Multiple witnesses said that men in police uniforms carried out both attacks, apparently in retaliation for attacks on policemen by armed men presumed sympathetic to the opposition. The first attack killed at least seven residents and the second killed nine. In the Cibitoke attack, residents recognized members of the ruling party youth league who collaborated with policemen during the attack. Two witnesses saw between 7 and 10 dead bodies in civilian clothes being loaded into a police truck the day after the attack.
In the second attack, in Ngagara, the victims included a cameraman who worked for the state broadcaster. Police shot him dead, then ordered his wife, nephew, and two teenage children to come out of the house, made them and a local guard lie down on the main street, and shot each of them in the head, according to multiple witnesses.
In other cases, it has not been possible to identify the attackers. Dead bodies have been found nearly daily in Bujumbura, usually dumped overnight, sometimes in locations other than where they were killed – making it difficult to identify the victims or the killers. Many victims have been found shot dead, with their hands or arms bound, and with injuries indicating they may have been tortured. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch some bodies appeared to have been stuffed into sacks, taken to the outskirts of the city, and buried.
Human Rights Watch arrived at the figure of more than 100 deaths by speaking to witnesses, family members of the victims, local authorities, journalists, and other local sources, but has not confirmed each killing or the circumstances of every incident. Many Bujumbura residents told Human Rights Watch that they were afraid to discuss the killings, making it difficult to confirm the exact number of victims.
The police deputy director general, Godefroid Bizimana – one of four people against whom the European Union imposed sanctions on October 1 for “undermining democracy or obstructing efforts to achieve a political solution” – told Human Rights Watch on October 16: “The youths have used the population as human shields. This is how civilians have died. Some of the insurgents take civilians, accuse them of not being sympathetic to their cause, kill them, and dump their bodies.”
Witnesses, family members of victims, and members of the ruling party told Human Rights Watch that many of those who have turned up dead belonged to either opposition parties or the ruling National Council for the Defense of Democracy-Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD). Some were members of the CNDD-FDD youth league, known as Imbonerakure (“those who see far” in Kirundi). Armed people sympathetic to the opposition have resorted to violence, throwing grenades at police, firing on them, and attacking police posts.
The prosecutor general and the police spokesperson told Human Rights Watch that investigations are opened into all reports of killings. In many cases, however, witnesses and victims’ relatives told Human Rights Watch that judicial authorities had not contacted them regarding investigations, even in high-profile cases or cases where the victims were ruling party members.
A justice official told Human Rights Watch that while case files have been opened on many killings, magistrates have not always thoroughly investigated them. The official said that cases are highly politicized, with some high-profile cases handled directly by magistrates or other officials close to the ruling party.
The deteriorating human rights situation in Burundi has led to a flurry of statements, resolutions, and other actions by senior diplomats and international and regional organizations, including a meeting at the UN Security Council on November 9 and a strong statement by the African Union Peace and Security Council on October 17. International and regional actors should use all available channels to sustain pressure on Nkurunziza to prevent further violence, Human Rights Watch said.
The UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, and the chairperson of the African Union Commission, Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, should lead high-level delegations to Bujumbura to meet Nkurunziza and urge him to hold the police and the intelligence services accountable for their actions. The delegations should also address the lack of credible investigations into recent killings, the lack of independence of the justice system, and attacks by opposition sympathizers against security forces.
The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights should accelerate its investigation into human rights violations and other abuses in Burundi, as per the African Union’s Peace and Security Council statement on October 17, and ensure that it publishes a report on its findings in a timely manner. The commission should appoint experienced, independent members for this investigation who can focus particular attention on killings by state security forces and opposition sympathizers and lay the ground for effective independent criminal investigations.
When Nkurunziza took his oath of office for his third term on August 20, he promised that “investigations are happening and, sooner or later, those who are killing people will be apprehended and severely sanctioned.” Yet no information is available on any prosecutions for these killings.
“President Nkurunziza needs to stick to his word,” Bekele said. “To prove that Burundi is a country where the security forces aren’t above the law, he should publicly and unequivocally condemn all killings and make sure there are thorough, independent investigations and prosecutions regarding all such cases.”
For further details about the killings, please see below.
The Bujumbura Killings
Human Rights Watch’s research, conducted between July and November 2015, focused primarily on killings in and around Bujumbura. Several people have also been killed in the provinces. In an October 12 news release, the Public Security Minister Alain Guillaume Bunyoni noted that police had registered 130 “assassinations” in the country between July and September. He did not give a breakdown of casualties.
Since late July, Human Rights Watch has kept track of three patterns of killings in Bujumbura: killings during police raids after police were attacked by opposition sympathizers; killings directed at high-profile people with clear political affiliations; and killings of sometimes unidentified victims by unknown gunmen who dumped their bodies in the streets.
Deadly Police Raids
Demonstrations against President Pierre Nkurunziza’s bid for a third term began in April and were brutally suppressed by the police. After a failed coup led by a group of military officers on May 13, police intensified their crackdown on protesters. Since then, there have been sporadic attacks against security forces and persistent rumors that some Burundians have been forming an armed opposition movement in exile. The government’s closure of Burundi’s main private radio stations in April and May and repeated government threats against human rights groups, leaving them unable to operate freely, have meant that many abuses and other events go unreported.
Police spokesman Pierre Nkurikiye told Human Rights Watch on October 28 that grenades have sporadically been thrown at the police, usually when they respond to incidents in neighborhoods. He said 26 policemen had been killed since April. Burundian human rights activists believe the real number of police killed is higher.
Bizimana, the police deputy director general, told Human Rights Watch: “People take advantage at night and attack the police. They have grenades. The police retaliate by shooting at the people who threw grenades.”
These attacks on police have sometimes triggered deadly reprisal attacks by police and men in police uniforms. Activists, residents, and a former police official told Human Rights Watch they believed some Imbonerakure wear police uniforms and accompany real policemen during incursions into neighborhoods. Based on interviews with witnesses and past practices, Human Rights Watch believes that some Imbonerakure worked closely with the police during the October 3 attack in Cibitoke, as they have done in past incidents documented by Human Rights Watch.
Most of the victims of the October Cibitoke, Mutakura, and Ngagara attacks appear to have been residents whom the police killed randomly, simply because they happened to be in the area where policemen had been attacked or abducted. There are no indications that the police singled out these particular individuals on the basis of their identity.
October 3 Attack in Cibitoke and Mutakura
At about 11 a.m., residents of Cibitoke neighborhood in Bujumbura heard gunfire. A police official told Human Rights Watch that police had been called to the neighborhood to intervene in an incident and were attacked. Later that afternoon, police, accompanied by youths in civilian clothes, entered Cibitoke from Kamenge neighborhood. A witness told Human Rights Watch that some of the youths, who the witness thought were Imbonerakure, entered a compound and yelled at the inhabitants hiding in their houses:
“These imbeciles who shoot us at night, bring out these dogs, and we’re going to show them!” A woman in her [nearby] house yelled back at them: “They aren’t here. Truly, there is no one here.” They [two youths in civilian clothes] wanted to enter other compounds. A policeman with them said: “That’s not what we agreed on; I’m going to shoot at you!” He said to them [the two in civilian clothes]: “You came here to do this?”
The civilians and the policeman left the compound and stayed on the 10th avenue in Cibitoke. At least one witness recognized Imbonerakure among those in civilian clothes.
A witness overheard some of the youths speaking on the phone to someone they called “commissioner.” They said there was an operation in Cibitoke, and they were “in control of the sector.” They mentioned people who “are going to wear the uniforms” and that one person was already wearing a uniform. The others, they said, “are not in uniforms.”
The policemen and men in civilian clothes stopped two men who were returning home that evening. One of the men was Eloi Ndimira, a 54-year-old disabled man. A witness said:
They [the civilians and the policemen] said in a mean way: “Put your hands in the air and clap for us.” There were two men. One was disabled. He responded: “Who do you think you are calling me like that?” He couldn’t put his hands up and clap. He fell. We could hear his stick fall on the ground.
Around 7 p.m., we heard them, we heard sounds of gunfire. We could hear Eloi [the disabled man] say: “Oh! Oh! Oh!” He yelled three times. Maybe that’s when they stabbed him. When we heard Eloi’s cries, there were shots. We heard one of them say: “If it was me, I would have given him at least 10 bullets.” We heard between five and seven shots.
The next morning, two people who returned to the area in search of a missing family member saw between 7 and 10 Imbonerakure and one policeman preparing to put dead bodies in the back of a police pick up with police license plates. One of them said:
When I arrived at the 8th avenue, that’s where we saw a pile of bodies. I think there were at least 10 bodies. Some bodies were [laid out] side by side, some were piled up. Imbonerakure came and put them in a police vehicle. Among the Imbonerakure, there was one I recognized who had lived in Cibitoke, but moved to Kamenge.
On the same day, policemen arrived in Mutakura neighborhood. Residents heard gunfire at about 10 a.m. A witness said:
I found everyone in our plot outside of their houses, near their front doors. After a while, the police said: “Give us all the youth who live here.” The police were in solid blue uniforms. They ordered us to lie on the ground and told everyone to come out of their houses. We said there was nobody in the houses. They shot inside the houses to make everyone come out.
Policemen outside the compound continued to shoot into the compound. Two grenades were also thrown into the compound by people outside. The people who had been made to lie down took shelter in their houses. A Rwandan clothes washer, Joseph Baganineza, was killed by a bullet. Police set fire to some houses in the compound.
Soon afterward, the same witness said, policemen, including police who guard state institutions (Appui pour la protection des institutions, API), entered the compound:
They continued to shoot into the houses. That’s when I was hit. The bullet came through the window. [The police] shot a lot of bullets into houses that weren’t burned, so those hiding there would be hit. When I was already hit, they said: “Come out, with your hands in the air.” That’s when we saw the police in camouflage. It was [two] groups, in two different uniforms. The [API] said: “Yes, combatants, it’s you. Come out.” We said: “We aren’t combatants.” They said: “You know who [the combatants] are.” We said: “We don’t know them.” That’s when they started to search us.
The police confiscated telephones, money, and personal documents, then forced residents to lie face-down in the street, a witness said. If they tried to lift their heads, the police kicked them in the head or beat them with their gun barrels. The police arrested 48 young men, including some minors, and took them to the police detention center known as Bureau spécial de recherche (BSR).
There, a judicial police officer took statements from some of those arrested. One of the young men arrested, who could not read and had been injured, said:
The statement, the [judicial police officer] said to sign it, but he didn’t read back to me what he wrote. For example, he said: “Where were you when you were hit [with bullets]?” I said: “I was at home.” He said: “It’s you who shot at people, and you say you were hit? And what would have happened if someone had shot you in the head?”
Despite a serious gunshot wound and shrapnel wounds from a grenade blast, the police denied him medical treatment. He, and many of the other detainees, including the minors, were released several days later. They were not charged.
October 13 Attack in Ngagara
One of the most deadly police responses to an attack on policemen was on October 13 in Ngagara. Witnesses heard several grenades explode near a primary school. When residents went to the scene, they saw an injured person, whom they believed was an API policeman in civilian clothes, writhing on the ground. API members arrived, shooting in the air. Nkurikiye, the police spokesman, later said that armed men had captured three policemen in civilian clothes. One policeman was killed, one injured, and the other escaped.
At about 4 p.m. API police arrived in the area of Ngagara known as Quartier 3. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that they heard the police shooting at houses. Four API policemen entered the house of an older man. One of them told him: “Show us where the people are who did the crime.” When he said they weren’t there, the police kicked him in the stomach and beat him. An API policeman then shot him in the left leg and left.
A witness said the policeman came to his house: “He pointed the barrel of his gun at us, put his finger on the trigger, and said: ‘I’m going to kill you. You are going to pay for ours (who were killed).’”
The witness told them they could search the house and that they would not find any guns.
API policemen then went to a nearby house. They yelled: “If you aren’t guilty of anything, come out. Open [the gate].” Christophe Nkezabahizi, a cameraman for the state broadcaster Radio Télévision Nationale du Burundi (RTNB), said as he was opening the gate: “I’m a journalist at RTNB.” A witness said that an API policeman entered as Nkezabahizi opened the gate and slapped him. As Nkezabahizi lost his balance, the API policeman shot him twice. The policeman said again: “All those who are guilty of nothing, come out. Otherwise we are going to burn all the houses.”
Nkezabahizi’s wife, Alice, his adopted son, Trésor, his nephew, Evariste Mbonihankuye, and his daughter, Ines Nikura Kamikimana, known as “Kami,” came out of the house. As they passed by Nkezabahizi’s body, one of the API policemen asked Nkezabahizi’s wife: “Is this your husband?” She said yes. A local resident described what happened next:
They made them lie down in the street. And then they brought a guard [who lived nearby]. All of them were killed here. They were all shot in the same place, in the head, near the eye. Except Kami, who was shot under the chin. Her brains were left there with pieces of her skull.
Afterward, two policemen arrived and started shooting [at Nkezabahizi’s house]. One aimed at the living room and the other at the bedroom. One of them said loudly, as a warning: “Let’s hope nobody else is left here.” They said to each other that there were people still inside the house. They continued shooting several times. They left and came back. Left and came back. They did this three times. Each time, they started shooting again. It lasted around 30 minutes.”
Witnesses said police also shot randomly at many other houses.
During the raid, the police also shot dead three other young men from the local area, at least two of them in the head. A witness said that an API policeman found a domestic worker hiding in a house and said to him: “‘You dog, you’re hiding here? It was you who shot at us!’ He shot him in the back of the head and the bullet came out of his forehead. When we went to get the body, there were brains on the ground.”
Another domestic worker who distributed beer and soft drinks in the neighborhood was also found dead in the street, shot in the head.
On October 17 the prosecutor general, Valentin Bagorikunda, set up a commission to investigate the attack in Ngagara and said its report was expected in 10 days. It is unclear if the report has been finalized.
High Profile Attacks Against Specific Individuals
In addition to killings during police raids, a number of directed killings and attacks have been aimed at specific individuals. The victims have included high-profile politicians, members of the security forces, human rights activists, and journalists.
One of the first was on May 23, almost a month after the start of demonstrations against Nkurunziza’s bid to stand for a third electoral term, when Zedi Feruzi, president of the opposition party Union for Peace and Democracy-Zigamibanga (Union pour la paix et la démocratie-Zigamibanga) was murdered. Jean-Baptiste Bireha, a journalist, was injured during the attack, shot by men in police uniforms as he accompanied Feruzi home.
Beginning in August, the number of these attacks increased sharply. The following list is not exhaustive:
- August 2: Lt. Gen. Adolphe Nshimirimana, former head of the intelligence service and a close ally of the president, killed when unidentified men opened fire on his vehicle in Bujumbura;
- August 2: Esdras Ndikumana, the Burundi correspondent for Radio France Internationale (RFI) and Agence France-Presse (AFP), severely beaten by intelligence officials after attempting to take pictures of the vehicle in which Nshimirimana was killed. Intelligence agents broke his finger and beat him hard on the soles of his feet;
- August 3: Pierre Claver Mbonimpa, president of the Burundian human rights organization Association for the Protection of Human Rights and Detained Persons (APRODH), shot in the face and neck on his way home from work by a man on a motorcycle who approached his car. Mbonimpa recognized the shooter as someone who worked with the intelligence services. Mbonimpa was severely injured and is receiving medical treatment in Europe;
- August 4: Côme Harerimana, a local president of the CNDD-FDD in Kanyosha, in Bujumbura Rurale province, killed when an unidentified gunman threw a brick at the motorcycle on which he was riding, causing the driver to lose control. The assailant then shot Harerimana in the head, ribs, and arm, and fled. Harerimana had previously received threats, apparently because he was a member of the ruling party. Demonstrators had come to his house during protests against Nkurunziza’s third term and sung: “We will dig 100 meters down and will bury Côme and all his family there”;
- August 15: Col. Jean Bikomagu, former chief of staff of the Burundian army during Burundi’s civil war in the 1990s, shot dead by an unidentified man on a motorcycle as he returned home;
- August 22: Pontien Barutwanayo, a member of the opposition party National Liberation Forces (Forces nationales de libération, FNL) and former administrator of Isale commune, in Bujumbura Rurale province, shot dead. A witness said one or several people opened fire on Barutwanayo from behind a wall as he sat with friends at an outdoor bar in Rushubi, a town in Isale;
- September 7: Patrice Gahungu, spokesperson for the UPD opposition party, shot dead while driving to his house in Bujumbura. Intelligence agents had severely tortured Gahungu in 2010, beating him with truncheons and rocks, cutting off a piece of his ear and trying to make him swallow it, and forcing him to drink his own blood. They had interrogated him about grenade attacks allegedly carried out by the UPD and FNL and the two parties’ links. He was imprisoned for 15 months, and charged with weapons possession. After his release on October 24, 2011, he submitted an official complaint to the prosecutor general in 2012, as well as a petition to the UN Committee Against Torture on July 30, 2012. The Committee Against Torture wrote to the Burundian government in late August 2015, saying that Gahungu’s rights had been violated. The committee said the government should “take all necessary measures to prevent all threats or acts of violence to which the petitioner or his family could be exposed, in particular for having submitted this present request”;
- September 11: Gen. Prime Niyongabo, the army chief of staff, escaped an attack by unknown men in Bujumbura in which several of his bodyguards were killed; and
- October 17: Charlotte Umurwaneza, a member of the MSD opposition party, disappeared on October 16. Her body was found two days later next to a river outside of Bujumbura.
The prosecutor general, Valentin Bagorikunda, told Human Rights Watch in a meeting on October 16 that case files have been opened for each killing in the country. He said that investigations into the attack on Mbonimpa were under way but that it had not been easy to obtain testimony. He said that pre-judicial investigations were also under way on the killings of the two UPD representatives, Feruzi and Gahungu.
In the case of Ndikumana, Bagorikunda said that because Ndikumana was not currently in the country, and the prosecutor did not have his statement, it was not easy to make progress with the investigation.
On October 19, RFI, AFP, and Ndikumana himself filed legal complaints at the Supreme Court of Burundi against a person at the intelligence services they accused of torturing Ndikumana. The spokesperson for the intelligence services told RFI that at the time of Ndikumana’s arrest, people were “in a panic” and that there was “misconduct.” The spokesperson said necessary measures and sanctions would be taken.
In one of the few cases in which suspects were apprehended, a soldier and three policemen were among those arrested in connection with the killing of Nshimirimana. Nkurikiye told Human Rights Watch on September 22 that investigations were also ongoing into the attacks on Mbonimpa, Bikomagu, Barutwanayo, and Bireha, the journalist injured during the attack on Feruzi. He said that “for each assassination case, for each corpse that is found, there is a case file opened; there is an investigation.”
In addition to the above high-profile cases, a number of other people were murdered from May onward. Victims were apparently singled out because of their political affiliations, suspected links to the opposition, or past grievances between some of the victims and government agencies, such as the intelligence services.
Sources close to the victims said that some had received threatening visits, text messages, or calls from unidentified people or people close to the ruling party. In some cases, sources witnessed or confirmed that members of the intelligence services and security forces were involved in abductions or killings.
The killings were aimed at members of the ruling party as well as government opponents. A witness told Human Rights Watch that on May 25, anti-government demonstrators came to the house of a CNDD-FDD party member in charge of awareness-raising in his area, on the outskirts of Bujumbura. They broke the windows on the door, damaged the roof, and looted and burned some of the man’s possessions.
On July 31, unidentified men came to his house at 11 p.m. and knocked on the door, saying: “Come out, we have something to tell you. We are military.” The witness, who was in the house with the victim at the time, said the victim looked outside and saw about 12 armed men surrounding the house. Some were in civilian clothes. Two or three wore camouflage military uniforms.
The witness said:
When I started to yell, they [the armed men] started shooting. After a moment, [the man] went outside, but he had already been hit [by bullets]. We found blood in the house. I went outside five minutes later. I found one of the assailants sitting in front of the door. Two others were against a wall. One of them said: “Shoot [her]!” Another one said: “No, it’s not worth it. We have already finished with the one we were looking for.”
A relative found the victim near his house. He had been shot multiple times in the genitals and arm. The attackers burned the man’s house and fled. A month after the killing, a relative of the victim said that the family was unaware of any investigation into his death.
In another case on the outskirts of Bujumbura, a 30-year-old man and his wife, both former fighters for the opposition FNL, had been threatened by opposition supporters for several months. After being demobilized from the FNL, the man had joined the CNDD-FDD under pressure. Anti-Nkurunziza demonstrators and other people visited his house multiple times. He believed they were unhappy with his membership of the ruling party and with his refusal to participate in demonstrations.
The man told Human Rights Watch: “[A demonstrator] said openly that those who are not with them in their struggle against the state will be considered enemies. They were looking at us, saying the [ruling party] gave us weapons.”
On the night of August 25, unidentified men came to the man’s house while he was out and shot his wife dead. They also shot his 8-year-old son five times. The boy survived. “I didn’t have the courage to look at [his wife’s body] because people said her head was completely flattened,” the man said.
Egide Twagirayezu, 35, who, until recently, had been an active member, fundraiser, and mobilizer of the ruling party, had signed a letter denouncing the president’s bid for a third term. Someone with knowledge of the case told Human Rights Watch that after Twagirayezu signed the letter, the intelligence services and members of the ruling party’s commission of discipline threatened him. He was fired from his job and reassigned to another one. In response to increased pressure, he wrote a letter to party officials asking forgiveness, but the threats continued. Youths followed him and watched his house, the intelligence services questioned him, and a high-level government official advised him to flee because his life was in danger. He told a family member: “I’m going to die. With the threats I’m getting, I’m going to die. Take care of the kids.”
On August 12, Twagirayezu and his wife, Yvette Irakoze, 32, went to a bar in the Kamenge neighborhood. A policeman was seen outside near their car. When Twagirayezu, Irakoze, and a family member left the bar and got in the car, an unknown gunman opened fire from behind the car. A witness who saw the body said: “Egide was shot from behind. The bullets came out of his chest. One of his eyes was shot out. His wife was hit about 20 times.”
Both were killed. The couple left behind a 3-year-old daughter and a 1-year-old son.
In other cases, the motive for the killings is not clear. On August 11, an employee of the University of Burundi received a call from an acquaintance and left to meet him. He was later arrested by policemen and men in civilian clothes with guns at a restaurant near the central market in Bujumbura. On August 16 passers-by found his decomposing body in a field on the outskirts of Bujumbura. According to a witness, three fingers were missing on one of his hands and two on the other. The witness said he had been shot in the head.