Germain Rukiki. 

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A Burundian human rights activist, Germain Rukuki, was sentenced to 32 years in prison on Thursday on charges of “rebellion,” “threatening state security,” “participation in an insurrectional movement,” and “attacks on the head of state.” The verdict and harsh sentence come just weeks before a constitutional referendum that will allow the president to extend his term in office.

Rukuki’s conviction sends a strong message to anyone who dares document government abuse ahead of the vote. As the referendum approaches, the government is brutally cracking down on suspected opponents and signaling clearly that those who do not register or who dare to vote “no” will face dire consequences.

Rukuki, a member of Action by Christians for the Abolition of Torture (ACAT)-Burundi, has been detained since last July. His organization conducted investigations and advocacy before and during the violence of 2015, when President Pierre Nkurunziza announced his bid for a controversial third term, plunging the country into a serious political and human rights crisis that continues today.

The government closed ACAT down in October 2016, along with several other human rights groups accused of working to “tarnish the image of the country” and “sow hatred and division” among the people. But that wasn’t enough. Human rights groups regard Rukuki’s subsequent arrest and trial as a direct attack.

Rukuki is not the only rights activist to be targeted. In November, authorities arrested Nestor Nibitanga, an observer for the Association for the Protection of Human Rights and Detained Persons (APRODH), a leading Burundian human rights organization. Like Rukuki, Nibitanga was charged with “threatening state security.” The national intelligence service (Service national de renseignement, SNR) held both of them before transferring them to prison.

Last August, a group of UN experts called for Rukiki’s release and raised concerns over using charges of acting against state security and threats to silence human rights activists. These concerns are proving well founded in the run up to the referendum. With Rukiki’s conviction, the message is clear to anyone who seeks to raise the alarm about abuse in Burundi: you are not safe.