(Nairobi) – Burundian authorities should credibly investigate and provide a transparent and reliable account of the December 7, 2021, fire at Gitega’s central prison, Human Rights Watch said today. Several hundred prisoners may have died or been injured.
The authorities have failed to conduct a transparent, credible, and impartial investigation into the fire to examine the circumstances in which it started and spread, officials’ reaction and their failure to evacuate prisoners, and to accurately count and identify the dead and injured. They should communicate findings transparently – including the names of the dead and the injured – and fairly prosecute anyone who may be held responsible, if necessary. They should also provide survivors and victims’ family members with compensation, medical care, and mental health support.
“More than a month after the tragedy at Gitega prison, the government has failed to give a full and truthful accounting of what happened and to treat family members of the deceased with dignity,” said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The absence of information about the real number and identities of the victims only adds further pain and distress in the wake of unimaginable loss.”
The fire broke out around 4 a.m. on December 7, in the prison in Burundi’s political capital, and spread to several blocks; large rooms that can house up to several hundred prisoners. According to three prisoners interviewed and two other sources who have been inside the prison since the fire, block 4, which is thought to have housed over 250 prisoners, was the worst affected. Prisoners attempting to flee the flames broke through a wall. Prisoners also said that no evacuation took place until the emergency services arrived sometime between 5:30 and 6 a.m.
“In our block, many survived,” said one prisoner interviewed by phone. “But in other blocks they didn’t wake up in time and many died. The guards came at 6 a.m., but by then it was too late. Between 4 a.m. and 6 a.m., it was only the prisoners and the fire.” Two other prisoners and a lawyer who spoke with two clients detained in Gitega prison confirmed this account. One prisoner said that in block 2, many prisoners suffocated from inhaling smoke.
After emergency services arrived, Vice President Prosper Bazombanza told reporters at the prison that the fire had killed 38 people but did not identify them. The Interior Ministry said on Twitter that an electrical short circuit caused the fire. Weeks later, on December 29, President Évariste Ndayishimiye said 46 people had died, including some who died in the hospital. However, prisoners and other sources told Human Rights Watch that they believe the number of dead is higher. They said no investigation or roll call had been conducted at the time of Bazombanza’s announcement.
“The government’s numbers are lies,” a prisoner told Human Rights Watch on December 11. “The real number of dead is between 200 and 400... Since yesterday, prisoners are being sent back [inside] so we can see who is missing.”
Prisoners and two other sources present when dead bodies were removed said they were transported in large plastic sheets, some containing the remains of multiple bodies. Sources there at the time said the remains were buried in bags in mass graves on the evening of December 7 without any attempt to identify them.
On January 7, 2022, Human Rights Watch spoke with family members of three prisoners, two of whom are believed to have died in the fire. The wife of a missing prisoner, the mother of three children, said she traveled to Gitega the morning after the fire, struggling to pay for her transportation: “When I arrived, I found others looking for their loved ones. The authorities told us they would communicate with us later... Until today, I haven’t heard anything from them. I can’t afford to go back.”
She said a prisoner who survived the fire informed her that her husband’s block had been destroyed in the fire, and that he had died: “My children are traumatized... I tried to explain that their father is dead, but they don’t understand why we didn’t bury him. If [the authorities] could at least tell us officially who died, maybe it would help them.”
The 47-year-old uncle of a missing prisoner said that he had traveled to Gitega prison twice since the fire but that the authorities gave him no information. “The authorities are lying when they say they buried the dead with dignity,” he said. “We learned that they buried them in mass graves. My nephew was held in block 4... and a friend in the prison told me it had been totally destroyed by the fire. We used to communicate with my nephew regularly, but since the day of the fire, we haven’t received a single message from him. We think he is dead, even though we haven’t received official information.”
An independent investigation should clarify the facts surrounding the fire, including any factors or practices that may have brought about the deaths, Human Rights Watch said. The victims’ next of kin should be involved in the process. They should receive legal assistance, have access to the case file, and, if state responsibility is established, be compensated. Having a reliable account and clearer understanding of the circumstances surrounding the deaths of their loved ones could help the next of kin cope with their suffering, Human Rights Watch said.
The absence of a credible and transparent investigation into the Gitega fire underscores the urgent need for sustained scrutiny of the government’s human rights record, Human Rights Watch said.
This tragic incident also shines a light on persistent, systemic issues with Burundi’s prison system. Gitega also had a fire on August 21, reportedly due to an electrical short circuit, but it was extinguished before there were any casualties. At the time of both fires, the prison housed more than three times its maximum inmate capacity.
According to the Association for the Protection of Human Rights and Detained Persons (APRODH), an exiled human rights organization that monitors human rights abuses and the rights of prisoners, about 40 percent of those held at Gitega prison as of October were in pre-trial detention. Certain detainees in Burundi have served their sentences or been acquitted, but have not yet been released due to an inefficient, corrupt, and politicized judicial system.
Many detainees in Gitega and other prisons in the country were convicted on the basis of their peaceful political activities. A March 2021 presidential pardon announced the pardon or early release of more than 5,000 prisoners but excluded many accused of security-related offenses, including many who were arrested in the aftermath of the 2015 protests over the former president’s bid for a third term and are held on political grounds. About 3,000 have been released since the announcement, according to a credible source.
On December 29 President Ndayishimiye said that a report on the fire was being prepared, and that judicial authorities should issue judgments and speed up judicial procedures, and that suspects accused of non serious criminal offenses should be released from pretrial detention. Since then, Human Rights Watch has received credible information that some pretrial detainees accused of lesser crimes have been released from several prisons, including Gitega.
The government should immediately address dangerous prison overcrowding by releasing all prisoners held for exercising their basic rights and those detained arbitrarily, including those who have served their sentences or been acquitted, Human Rights Watch said.
Under international law, government authorities have a duty of care for people in prisons, including an obligation to protect their rights to life, health, safety, and security. The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights in its 1995 Resolution on Prisons in Africa, said that African countries should conform to the “international norms and standards for the protection of the human rights of prisoners.”
The UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (the Mandela Rules) state that prisoners are to be treated with dignity and have prompt access to medical attention, and that in the case of deaths in custody, the prison will report the cases to independent judicial or other authorities to ensure a prompt, impartial, and effective investigation. The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights obligate governments to investigate and appropriately punish those responsible for abuses against people in custody and to provide reparations for victims.
“This tragedy should serve as a wake-up call,” Mudge said. “Further delays in tackling prison overcrowding and appalling detention conditions will put more lives at risk. The government should urgently release prisoners who have no reason to be detained, and transparently investigate any failure of prison authorities to safeguard prisoners’ rights, including the right to life and access to justice and accountability.”