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The release of six schoolgirls and one boy, arrested last month for doodling on the Burundian president’s photo and charged with “insulting the head of state”, is not the end of their woes.

In a letter dated March 20, the director at the Akamuri school accused five of the seven children arrested on March 12 – aged 13 to 17 years old –, of “falsifying their schoolbooks,” a violation of school regulations, and expelled them permanently from the school.

Their arrest and detention triggered criticism and a global social media campaign encouraging others to scribble on the president’s image and post them online with the hashtag #FreeOurGirls to show solidarity.

Although three of the schoolgirls were released a few days after their arrest, the judge extended the pre-trial detention and transferred the three other girls to a women’s jail in Ngozi, where they were held for six days.

All six schoolgirls have now returned to their families but still face charges of “insulting the head of state.” Now, four have not been allowed to resume their secondary studies. The young boy arrested with them has also been expelled, although he was never charged or detained. They all proclaim their innocence, and the second-hand books, according to a source in Kirundo, had recently been sent by another school.

The students’ parents are understandably concerned for their children’s future. One parent said he was saddened to see his daughter at home doing domestic work instead of going to school. Another said her daughter was “traumatized.”

All children have a right to go to school, to have equal access to education at all levels, and to be guaranteed a quality education.

This type of petty punishment is becoming commonplace in Burundi. In 2016, hundreds of children were expelled from several schools for scribbling on the president’s face in textbooks. Recently, the arrest of two more schoolchildren for scribbling on the president’s photo in Gitega was reported on social media, although it is unclear if they have been charged.

Some school officials have become accomplices in the state crackdown on any type of opponents to the president, even students doodling on his image. Children, like adults, have a right to freedom of expression, but now something as trivial as doodling has put the education, and future, of seven children at risk. School administrators that put placating a thin-skinned president over the well-being of children are doing a dis-service to the country and their profession.

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