Earlier this month Burundian intelligence agents arrested eight secondary school students in Muramvya province and accused them of insulting the head of state. Their crime? Drawing and writing phrases like “Get out” or “No to the 3rd term” on a picture of President Pierre Nkurunziza in a textbook. Angered by the arrests, their classmates demonstrated in the streets. Security forces shot and injured two students and a motorcycle driver, who later died. They also arrested three other students. Minors were released but five students aged 19 and 20 are still detained, facing charges of insulting the head of state. They could spend up to five years in prison if found guilty.

President Pierre Nkurunziza stands after being sworn in for a third term. Bujumbura, Burundi, August 20, 2015. 

This isn’t the first time students have been targeted in a crackdown by authorities. On May 27, school administrators kicked hundreds of students out of a secondary school in Ruziba, a community south of the capital Bujumbura, for the same reason. On June 14, in Ruyigi province in eastern Burundi, school administrators expelled a further 230 students when they refused to reveal who scribbled on the president’s face in textbooks. Media have also reported that school authorities at a secondary school in Bujumbura threatened to expel around 400 students unless their parents paid to replace textbooks in which the president’s photo had been doodled on. A few days ago, in Cankuzo province, a student was badly beaten in a police cell for doodling on a photo of the president.

Typical teenage antics, right? Not in Burundi. Since April 2015, the country has been gripped by a political and human rights crisis triggered by President Pierre Nkurunziza’s controversial decision to stand for a third term. Perhaps out of fear, teachers, school administrators and local officials have become wrapped up in the crackdown on government opponents, including students who doodle on pictures, whether out of boredom or protest.

The students’ arrest marks a turning point and portends a worrying future: Intelligence agents act as if they are accountable to no one and seem to be able to arrest anyone they believe opposes the president. In a judicial system manipulated by the ruling party, those detained are unlikely to receive a fair hearing.  

The authorities should immediately release the students and stop Burundi’s freefall toward authoritarianism.