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Women queue to cast their votes in the presidential election, in Giheta, Gitega province, Burundi, May 20, 2020. © 2020 Berthier Mugiraneza/AP Photo

(Nairobi) – Serious allegations of abuse during Burundi’s May 20, 2020 elections should be investigated and those responsible held accountable.

After a campaign for presidential, legislative, and communal elections marred by violence, arrests of opposition members, including candidates, and a crackdown on free speech, the national electoral commission announced provisional results on May 25. The commission announced that Évariste Ndayishimiye, the candidate for the ruling National Council for the Defense of Democracy-Forces for the Defense of Democracy (Conseil national pour la défense de la démocratie-Forces pour la défense de la démocratie, CNDD-FDD), had won a reported 68.72 percent of the vote, but on May 28, the commission’s president said “draft” results that had not been “officially published” needed to be retracted. On May 30, the commission pronounced Ndayishimiye the winner of the presidential vote, although the constitutional court has yet to confirm the results.

“The elections took place in a highly repressive environment with no independent international observers,” said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Reports of killings, arbitrary arrests, beatings, and voter intimidation during the campaigns should not be brushed under the rug.”

The largest opposition party, the National Congress for Freedom (Congrès national pour la liberté, CNL), denounced the results, calling the vote “a fiasco.” Its allegations include arrests of opposition party members and candidates, voter intimidation, vote rigging, and partisanship by election officials in the pre-election period and on election day.

The elections took place in the absence of any international observation mission and, on the day of the vote, access to social media and messaging apps was blocked throughout the country, restricting independent reporting and information sharing. Since the provisional results were announced, Human Rights Watch has received credible reports of opposition members being threatened and beaten, particularly in rural areas. Local media have also reported arrests of opposition members, accused of threatening the security of the state.

The CNL told local media that over 600 of its members had been arrested during the campaigns and on election day, and Burundian rights organizations reported multiple abuses, including arbitrary arrests and beatings of CNL and other opposition party members. Human Rights Watch has also documented killings and arbitrary arrests of CNL members during the pre-election period.

The CNL alleged serious irregularities including ballot stuffing and said that its polling agents (mandataires) were denied access to polling places and, in some cases, arrested. Human Rights Watch spoke with several voters, journalists, and human rights defenders who said that in some rural locations, ruling party youths were present at polling places and had intimidated voters, while election officials and the police turned a blind eye to voter harassment and intimidation.

A voter in Mwumba commune, Ngozi province, said: “When I arrived at the voting station, the Imbonerakure [the ruling party’s youth league] were telling people to vote for the CNDD-FDD. They took the voting cards of some people and voted in their place.”

Throughout the pre-election period, Imbonerakure members committed widespread abuses, especially against people perceived to be against the ruling party, including killings, enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrests, beatings, extortion, and intimidation. “I was afraid to go vote,” said one CNL member from Kiremba commune, Ngozi province. “I heard about our members being arrested by some Imbonerakure, and others being beaten on the day of the election. The situation is very tense.”

A journalist who traveled through Bubanza and Cibitoke provinces’ voting locations said he witnessed arrests and beatings of opposition supporters on election day as well as several instances of fraud and irregularities. The Catholic Bishops Council (Conseil des évêques catholiques), which deployed observers to 2,716 polling places, also reported instances of irregularities. In his May 28 news conference, the electoral commission president dismissed its findings.

The media were heavily restricted in their coverage. The 2018 amended press law and a new Code of Conduct for Media and Journalists in the Election Period for 2020 requires journalists to provide “balanced” information or face criminal prosecution, and forbids them from publishing information about the elections or its results that do not come from the national electoral commission. Some independent journalists reported difficulty accessing polling places and getting information about the vote, and the social media shutdown restricted their work.

Burundi’s National Independent Human Rights Commission, the CNIDH, which is pro-government, said that the elections had taken place in a context of peace and security, and praised security forces for protecting human rights. The Security Ministry’s spokesperson, Pierre Nkurikiye, said the vote had taken place without any security incidents.

On May 18, General Prosecutor Sylvestre Nyandwi wrote to the national election commission president saying 59 CNL legislative and communal candidates should be removed from the electoral lists due to ongoing prosecutions against them. In some cases, the letter said, the accused were on the run. In the lead up to the elections, groups of opposition members were taken to court and tried in summary trials under a provision of the Burundian Code of Criminal Procedure that allows for an accelerated procedure for offenders allegedly caught in the act (en flagrance). 

The campaigns and vote took place amid the Covid-19 pandemic. In recent weeks, medical and humanitarian sources have expressed concern to Human Rights Watch that the authorities are doing little to limit the spread of the virus. Although Burundi has only confirmed 63 cases, doctors and nurses have told the media that the government is downplaying the crisis and suppressing the real death toll

On May 12, the government declared the country representative of the World Health Organization (WHO) and three of its experts persona non grata without giving any reason. On April 16, the foreign affairs minister announced the suspension of the diaspora voting in embassies due to measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19 in various different countries.

On May 14, the United Nations Human Rights Council-mandated Commission of Inquiry on Burundi expressed alarm over the increase in political violence, including clashes between members of the CNDD-FDD and CNL resulting in casualties and injuries on both sides. It also cited hate speech and incitement to violence against political opponents, and a wave of arrests of CNL members, including opposition candidates. Statements by government officials blamed the opposition for the majority of security incidents.

In recent years, Human Rights Watch has documented an ongoing pattern of harassment, arbitrary arrests, and detention of opposition party supporters, activists, and journalists.

Agathon Rwasa, the main opposition party’s presidential candidate, has accused the ruling party of vote rigging and took the matter to the constitutional court on May 28, in line with the procedures established by the electoral code. In its statement, the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi warned that the politicization of the judicial system and the lack of trust in the constitutional court had exacerbated mistrust by the opposition and parts of the population.

The East African Community, whose election observation mission failed to materialize, issued a statement on May 26 praising the “peaceful and successful” elections process, saying that it was “domestically driven through [the country’s] own funding.” The elections were funded in part by “contributions” forcibly collected from the population between 2017 and 2019, opening the door to widespread abuse as Imbonerakure members and local administrators entrenched their control over the population, Human Rights Watch said.

Diplomatic missions in Burundi, the European Union, the UN resident coordinator, and the executive secretary of the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region took note of the provisional results in a statement on May 27, in which they encouraged everyone involved to “preserve a peaceful climate” and resolve any electoral disputes through existing legal procedures. Senate elections are scheduled for July 20 and local elections for August 24.

Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Burundi is a party, states, “Every citizen shall have the right and the opportunity … [t]o vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret ballot, guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors.”

“Responding to allegations of serious human rights violations and electoral fraud with more repression risks inflaming an already tense situation and could have disastrous repercussions,” Mudge said. “The government, its international partners, and regional actors should remember that elections are about the rights of voters – not those in power – to choose the people’s leaders.”

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