Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza takes part in a ceremony in Bujumbura. Nkurunziza’s controversial third term won in 2015 roiled the country throughout 2016, with numerous cases of extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, and torture committed by security forces.  

© 2016 Evrard Ngendakumana/Reuters

While the crackdown continues in Burundi against anyone who dares challenge President Pierre Nkurunziza, authorities showed how thin-skinned they really are when arresting seven schoolchildren last week. The children stood accused of having scribbled on the president’s photo in their school books.

Upon arrest, the children were brought before the public prosecutor in Kirundo province. A 13-year-old, being below the age of criminal responsibility, was released. Six girls, however, were taken to the local police station jail. Three were later released, but the three others, all teenagers under the age of 18, remained in jail over the weekend. They were charged on Monday with insulting the head of state, and could spend up to five years in prison if found guilty.

The girls, one father said on Saturday, are too scared to eat.

This is not the first-time school administrators and authorities have cracked down on children’s doodling. In 2016, Burundian intelligence agents arrested eight secondary school students and also accused them of insulting the head of state for drawing and writing phrases like “Get out” or “No to the 3rd term” on a picture of Nkurunziza in a textbook. The same year, hundreds of children were expelled from several schools for scribbling on the president’s face in textbooks.

With so many real crimes being committed in Burundi, it’s tragic that children are the ones being prosecuted for harmless scribbles.

Since April 2015, the country has been in the throes of a political and human rights crisis triggered by Nkurunziza’s controversial decision to stand for a third term. Since then, security services and the Imbonerakure, the ruling party’s youth league, have killed, arbitrarily arrested, abducted, beaten, raped, and intimidated real and perceived political opponents with impunity.

Authorities should focus on holding perpetrators of serious rights violations to account instead of jailing schoolchildren for doodles.