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East Africa: Little Progress, Worsening Repression

Serious Free Speech, Assembly Violations Linked to Elections

(Nairobi) – Governments in East Africa made little or no progress on human rights in 2015, and the situation in some countries, such as Burundi, sharply deteriorated, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2016.

Ethiopia and Burundi, and to some extent Uganda, experienced worsening restrictions on freedom of speech, assembly, and other rights in the lead up to or after elections. Other countries, such as Rwanda, maintained longstanding tight control on dissenting views. Kenya’s government failed to hold security forces to account for serious crimes and there were fresh horrific abuses in South Sudan, including attacks on civilians, repression, and a deepening humanitarian crisis in its second year of conflict. Across the region, governments failed to investigate and prosecute serious human rights violations.

“Burundi’s descent into a political and human rights crisis was a shocking low point in 2015,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “But key regional powers like Ethiopia, Uganda, and Kenya also failed to make progress on core human rights issues, including torture and killings by their security forces.”

In the 659-page World Report 2016, its 26th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 90 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth writes that the spread of terrorist attacks beyond the Middle East and the huge flows of refugees spawned by repression and conflict led many governments to curtail rights in misguided efforts to protect their security. At the same time, authoritarian governments throughout the world, fearful of peaceful dissent that is often magnified by social media, embarked on the most intense crackdown on independent groups in recent times.

Elections and counterterrorism were two significant themes affecting political and human rights developments in East Africa in 2015, Human Rights Watch said.

Burundi had the most dramatic deterioration in its human rights situation, triggered by President Pierre Nkurunziza’s decision to run for a third term. Security forces responded to public protests with brutal force, killing scores of protesters and injuring and arbitrarily arresting many others. The government’s relentless crackdown forced most of Burundi’s independent journalists and human rights defenders to flee the country due to repeated death threats, threats of prosecution on trumped-up charges, and beatings. The government closed the four most popular private radio stations and suspended the activities and froze the bank accounts of 10 independent organizations. A leading human rights activist, Pierre Claver Mbonimpa, narrowly survived attempted murder in August, with serious injuries. More than 230,000 people have fled for neighboring countries, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

In contrast, Ethiopia’s May elections were peaceful but utterly non-competitive due to years of repression: the ruling party swept all 547 parliamentary seats. While a few individual bloggers and journalists were released from prison, the government failed to reform the draconian legislation and abusive policies used to systematically suppress independent journalists, activists, and the political opposition. Despite the repression, a new protest movement emerged in Oromia, Ethiopia’s largest region, in mid-November, catalyzed by concern over a government plan to expand the capital and potentially displace ethnic Oromo farmers from their land. The government swiftly deployed military force against the largely peaceful protests, and scores were killed and injured.

Similarly, Sudan’s elections in April were conducted in an environment of repression and control by the ruling National Congress Party and were marred by arbitrary detentions and beatings of opposition members and activists calling for a boycott.

In Rwanda, the stage was set well in advance for elections in 2017. The parliament approved revisions to the constitution that would allow President Paul Kagame to run for a third term – a move supported in a referendum. Political space and free speech remained severely restricted, with few opportunities for genuine opposition parties to function freely and weak independent organizations due to years of intimidation. The government indefinitely suspended the BBC’s Kinyarwanda language broadcasts, an important source of independent information.

Patterns of repression, particularly intimidation and threats against journalists and activists, also increased before the February 2016 elections in Uganda. Journalists, particularly those based outside Kampala, face obstructions and have been suspended under government pressure, and radio stations have been threatened for hosting opposition members or panelists who expressed views critical of the ruling party. A new law regulating nongovernmental organizations, which contains vague and ill-defined criminal offenses for staff members, threatens to further shrink the space for independent organizations.

Another worrying trend was the failure of multiple governments to respond to serious allegations of unlawful killings, torture, sexual assault, and other violations. South Sudan’s government was emblematic, with no accountability to date for the massive crimes committed during the conflict. Parties to the conflict inflicted a grim toll on civilians, with repeated attacks during government offensives in Unity state. Sexual violence against women and girls was a particular feature of that violence. An August peace agreement between the South Sudan government and the rebel opposition brought some anticipation of an end to the conflict, but attacks against civilians continued in Unity state, as well as in the Equatorian states and Western Bahr el Ghazal, as government and opposition forces fought sporadically.

Kenya’s government also failed to respond to serious allegations of killings and enforced disappearances, a longstanding pattern that worsened in the wake of the April attack by the militant Islamist armed group Al-Shabab against students at Garissa University College, which killed 148 people. In a move reflecting the government’s longstanding hostility toward activists, it accused two human rights groups of supporting terrorism and froze their bank accounts.

“Governments across East Africa should stop violating rights in an effort to retain power,” Bekele said. “And governments should stop scapegoating human rights organizations and the media and investigate and prosecute unlawful killings by their security forces.”


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