(Nairobi) – The government of Burundi has failed to deliver justice for the killing of Ernest Manirumva, a Burundian anti-corruption activist, a decade ago. The emblematic case is an example of political interference with criminal investigations, especially in politically sensitive cases involving activists.

Funeral of Ernest Manirumva, vice-president of the Burundian civil society group OLUCOME, on April 13, 2009. Manirumva, who had helped to expose several cases of corruption in Burundi, was murdered at his home in Bujumbura on April 9, 2009.

© 2009 OLUCOME

Manirumva, a respected economist, had been investigating allegations of large-scale police corruption and illegal weapons purchases, among others, when he was killed. Manirumva was vice president of the Burundian group Anti-corruption and Economic Malpractice Observatory (Observatoire de Lutte contre la Corruption et les Malversations Économiques, OLUCOME). Since January of that year, he had also been vice president of an official body that regulates public procurement. His death sent shockwaves through Burundian civil society.

“Manirumva’s work threatened the interests of corrupt officials and businesspeople,” said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “A decade later, Manirumva’s life and death are a stark reminder of the risks activists take in Burundi and the inability of the courts to end the impunity of the powerful.”

In the early hours of April 9, 2009, assailants raided Manirumva’s home and stabbed him to death. Files were strewn around, and it appeared that documents had been taken.

A trial of those accused of kidnapping and murdering Manirumva, concluded in May 2012 after just three days, fell short of holding high-level police and security suspects accountable. The court convicted 14 people, with sentences ranging from 10 years to life, but the prosecutor ignored important leads and recommendations from a Burundian commission of inquiry and the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

After Manirumva’s death, activists campaigned under the slogan “Justice for Ernest Manirumva.” A partie civile (the party representing the victim’s family and OLUCOME) documented irregularities and Burundian law violations during the trial and appealed to the Supreme Court on June 11, 2013. A lawyer working on the case told Human Rights Watch that no decision has been issued to date.

The murder foreshadowed an increasingly dangerous environment for activists in Burundi. Since Manirumva’s killing, human rights defenders, journalists, political opponents, and those deemed to be against the ruling party have been threatened, intimidated, arrested, and attacked.

Under acute pressure, the courts have politicized the law and used questionable procedures to silence and detain members of nongovernmental organizations. Prosecutions increased in early 2014, in advance of the 2015 election, in which President Pierre Nkurunziza was elected for a controversial third term. Since then, many leading Burundian human rights defenders and independent journalists fled the country for their security.

Human Rights Watch has received multiple credible allegations from lawyers and judges of political interference with the judiciary. Recent phone interviews, conducted on the condition of anonymity, suggest that these are widespread concerns. Judges and lawyers consistently spoke about the ruling party officials’ influence over the judiciary at the local, provincial, and national level.

This interference takes several forms, especially for cases in which individuals are accused of threatening state security. One lawyer for a human rights defender said that he was not able to present his defense at his client’s trial. Another lawyer said judges are forced to convict certain people.

Among those recently imprisoned was Germain Rukuki, who was prosecuted in relation to his work with the now-banned anti-torture organization ACAT-Burundi. He was found guilty of “rebellion,” “threatening state security,” “participation in an insurrectional movement,” and “attacks on the head of state” and sentenced to 32 years in prison. Rukuki appealed the conviction, and although a decision should have been made by December 26, 2018, a lawyer informed about the case told Human Rights Watch that the appeals court had not located the file, leaving Rukuki’s case in limbo.

In March 2019, the Supreme Court’s spokesperson told local media that his file had been misplaced during the restructuring of the Appeals Court of Bujumbura. On April 4, three United Nations experts criticized the baseless charges against him and called for his release.

Nestor Nibitanga, a human rights defender and regional observer with the Association for the Protection of Human Rights and Detained Persons (Association Burundaise pour la Protection des Droits Humains et des Personnes Détenues, APRODH), was convicted on charges of threatening the security of the state and sentenced to five years in prison on August 13, 2018. Nibitanga was arrested in November 2017 and was unlawfully held incommunicado, without charge and without access to his family or a lawyer for almost two weeks. APRODH reported that judges cited Nibitanga’s continued work for the organization, which was suspended in 2016, as a motivation for the verdict.

A judge Human Rights Watch interviewed said that in cases against people accused of threatening state security, the instructions are clear:

There will never be a favorable outcome for the suspect in cases said to be political.… I’ve seen it with my own eyes – cases where a public prosecutor will put court proceedings on hold while he calls a local or provincial administration official to ask for their input on the case.

Lawyers and judges Human Rights Watch interviewed noted concerns about the nomination of judges, which they said is based on their political affiliation and willingness to comply with political interference.

Lawyers, judges, and nongovernmental organizations have documented scores of detainees currently awaiting trial or appeal or who have not been released despite serving out their sentence or being acquitted.

Aimé Gatore, Emmanuel Nshimirimana, and Marius Nizigama, members of a local organization, Words and Action for Awakening Consciences and Changing Mentalities (Parole et Action pour le Réveil des Consciences et l’Évolution des Mentalités, PARCEM), were sentenced to 10 years in prison for threatening the security of the state in March 2018, but were acquitted upon appeal in December. They were not released until March 21. A source close to the case said the delays were partly connected to the restructuring of the appeals court, but also due to the accusation against them. “If a judge has to release someone accused of threatening the security of the state, they are afraid to do so,” he said.

In a January 2019 decree, the president ordered the acquittal or reduction of sentences of thousands of prisoners, except those convicted of serious offenses such as threatening the security of the state.

“Sensitive trials of people deemed ‘opponents’ to the ruling party and accused of state security crimes highlight the judiciary’s bias,” Mudge said. “If Burundian authorities don’t find the political will to stop this impunity, the courts will become a hollow, meaningless, and corrupted shell.”