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Burundi’s President Pierre Nkurunziza at the Prince Louis Rwagasore stadium in Bujumbura, as Burundi marked its 55th independence anniversary on July 1, 2017. © 2017 Evrard Ngendakumana/Reuters

(Nairobi) – Burundi’s security services and ruling party youth league members killed, raped, abducted, beat, and intimidated suspected opponents in the months leading up to a constitutional referendum on May 17, 2018, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The country has faced a political, human rights, and humanitarian crisis since April 2015, when President Pierre Nkurunziza decided to run for a disputed third term.

The 32-page report, “‘We Will Beat You to Correct You’: Abuse Ahead of Burundi’s Constitutional Referendum,” documents violations and abuses by state security forces, intelligence services, members of the ruling party’s youth league – the Imbonerakure – and others close to the ruling party, in the year and a half leading up to the referendum. Many victims were targeted for refusing to register to vote or contribute funds to finance upcoming polls. In some cases, simply not belonging to the ruling party, the National Council for the Defense of Democracy-Forces for the Defense of Democracy (Conseil national pour la défense de la démocratie-Forces de défense de la démocratie, CNDD-FDD), was enough to create suspicion and provoke a response.

“Burundi’s referendum took place amid widespread abuse, fear, and pressure – a climate that is clearly not conducive to free choice,” said Ida Sawyer, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Government officials and the Imbonerakure clearly knew there would be no penalty for their violence against real and perceived opponents to allow Nkurunziza and the CNDD-FDD to maintain their grip on power.”

If the “yes” vote wins, the constitutional referendum will allow Nkurunziza to run for two seven-year terms, and possibly stay in power until 2034. Results of the referendum are expected to be announced in the coming days.

Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 100 people between February and May, including refugees in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda, and former Imbonerakure members.

Many said they felt they had no choice but to flee the country. Human Rights Watch documented 15 killings, six rapes used as punishment against those seen as against the CNDD-FDD, eight abductions, and numerous other violations. The full scale of abuse is difficult to determine and most likely significantly higher than the cases documented. The fear across the country leaves many victims and witnesses unwilling or unable to report abuses.

Burundian refugees in Mulongwe camp, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Most had to wait for months in a nearby transit center before being transferred to the camp. © 2018 Private

When announcing the referendum on December 12, 2017, Nkurunziza warned that those who dared to “sabotage” the project to revise the constitution “by word or action” would be crossing a “red line.” His speech legitimized a government policy of seeking out and punishing anyone perceived to oppose the referendum. Local authorities reinforced these threats.

In one case documented, the Imbonerakure killed a 30-year-old man in February 2017 in Bujumbura Rural province because he refused to join them. “The Imbonerakure wanted my son to join them, but he refused,” his mother said. “Then they started to say he was a traitor. One night, they came to the house and asked my son for money. He gave them what he had, but they still shot him in the stomach. He died there.”

Human Rights Watch spoke with five former Imbonerakure members about how the group has been operating since 2015. A former combatant from the National Liberation Forces (Forces nationales de libération, FNL, a former rebel movement that became a political party) said he reluctantly joined the Imbonerakure but fled after he refused an order to kill. “I received an order to kill other FNL who were in a jail in Cibitoke,” he said. “But I could not do it.... They said I needed to do something to prove that I could be trusted in the group.”

The fact that security services and Imbonerakure have been able to commit these crimes in recent years, confident that they won’t face punishment, has protected the abusers and encouraged further abuse. In nearly all cases Human Rights Watch documented, the people responsible and their commanders have not been arrested, charged, or tried, even when witnesses identified them. The government has failed to take reasonable steps to ensure security and protect its citizens, or to fulfill its duty to take all reasonable measures to prevent and prosecute these crimes.

In October 2017, judges from the International Criminal Court authorized an investigation into crimes committed in Burundi since April 2015. Two days later, Burundi became the first country to withdraw from the court.

The Burundian government should stop protecting those responsible for killings, rapes, beatings, arbitrary detention, threats, and harassment. The government should prevent these abuses, including by its own security forces and the Imbonerakure.

To show that there are consequences for those most responsible for the widespread abuses since 2015, the European Union and United States should expand targeted sanctions, including for those further up the chain of command. The United Nations Security Council should also impose targeted sanctions, including travel bans and asset freezes, against those responsible for ongoing serious human rights violations in Burundi.

African leaders should also step up and take a strong position to press Nkurunziza and his government to resolve the country’s crisis and end the violence and repression. 

“Nkurunziza and the CNDD-FDD have shown they will use whatever repression is necessary to keep their hold on power,” Sawyer said. “Burundi’s international partners, particularly African states, should let the government know that enough is enough. The abuses need to stop, and the abusers held accountable.”

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