Skip to main content

Submission by Human Rights Watch to the United Nations Committee Against Torture in Advance of its Adoption of a List of Issues for Burundi’s Third Reporting Cycle

January 2023

Human Rights Watch welcomes the opportunity to contribute to the United Nations Committee against Torture’s (“the Committee”) pre-sessional review of Burundi.

This memorandum highlights areas of concern Human Rights Watch hopes will inform the Committee’s consideration of the Burundian government’s compliance with the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment[1] (“the Convention”). It proposes specific measures that we hope will prove useful as the Committee draws up the “List of Issues” to seek further clarity from the government on outstanding issues regarding its adherence to the Convention.

This submission focuses on extra-judicial killings, enforced disappearances, torture and ill-treatment, and arbitrary arrests and detention by the Burundian state security forces and members of the youth league of the ruling party, the Imbonerakure, between 2016 and 2022 (articles 2, 4, 12, 13, and 16 of the Convention).


The Committee’s August 2016 concluding observations on the special report of Burundi requested under article 19 (1)[2] expressed concerns about suspected extrajudicial executions, mass graves and politically motivated murders; enforced disappearance of political opponents; acts of torture and ill-treatment; acts of politically motivated violence perpetrated by the Imbonerakure youth group; ethnically motivated acts of violence and incitement to hatred; excessive use of force against protesters; and arbitrary detention and arrests. The Burundian intelligence service (Service national de renseignement, SNR) have a long history of torture, extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detention, and other human rights abuses against suspected government opponents, going back many years. However, torture and ill-treatment appear to have become more widespread, more frequent, and torture techniques more brutal, following a failed coup in May 2015. During the reporting period, many trends documented since the beginning of Burundi’s human rights crisis in April 2015 persisted.

In late April 2015, public demonstrations broke out in response to the late president Pierre Nkurunziza’s decision to seek a controversial third electoral term. The Burundian police used excessive force and shot demonstrators indiscriminately. After a failed coup by a group of military officers in May 2015, the Burundian government intensified its repression against suspected opponents and suspended most of the country’s independent radio stations. By mid-2015, almost all Burundi’s opposition party leaders, independent journalists, and civil society activists had fled the country after receiving repeated threats. Those who remained did so at great risk.

Since 2016, and during Nkurunziza’s third and final term, independent civil society and media continued to be relentlessly attacked. There has been almost total impunity for these crimes. After a flawed electoral process and the sudden death of Nkurunziza, president Évariste Ndayishimiye took office in June 2020 and pledged to implement reforms and end impunity. However, since his election, all the structural human rights issues documented under his predecessor remain in place. Independent national and inter­national human rights organizations are still un­able to operate in Burundi. Several of the coun­try’s most prominent human rights groups remain either suspended or outlawed since 2015.

Killings, Torture, and Other Abuses by Security Forces and Ruling Party Youths

Throughout the reporting period, extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrests, and torture by security forces and Imbonerakure members continued unabated. Dead bodies of people killed in unknown circumstances were regularly found across the country, often rapidly buried by authorities without further investigation. While the Imbonerakure are not state actors, as members of the ruling party’s youth league, they have often been found to collaborate with or follow orders by the security forces, and regularly carry out law enforcement duties, despite having no legal authority to do so.

Since the Committee’s last review of Burundi, Human Rights Watch research has found that the Burundian intelligence service have continued to use torture to force detainees to confess to alleged crimes, incriminate or denounce others, and to intimidate them. The majority of victims were suspected government opponents. These practices directly contravene Article 1 of the Convention[3] and the Burundian Criminal Procedural Code. Members of the Burundian police and Imbonerakure have also committed serious abuses, often in collaboration with the intelligence service.

Abuses under the late Pierre Nkurunziza’s presidency (2017-2020)

On December 12, 2017, Nkurunziza announced a referendum would take place to revise the constitution. Nkurunziza warned that those who dared to “sabotage” the project to revise the constitution “by word or action” would be crossing a “red line.” In the months leading up to the referendum, police, intelligence service, and members of the Imbonerakure killed, raped, abducted, beat, and intimidated suspected opponents of the ruling National Council for the Defense of Democracy-Forces for the Defense of Democracy (Conseil national pour la défense de la démocratie-Forces de défense de la démocratie, CNDD-FDD).[4]

Political violence tied to the May 2018 referendum claimed at least 15 lives, but the actual number of people killed is likely much higher.[5] Numerous political opponents were arrested, intimidated, or held incommunicado in unknown locations, including members of the then-National Liberation Forces (Forces nationales de libération, FNL), the Movement for Solidarity and Democracy (Mouvement pour la solidarité et la démocratie, MSD), and other opposition parties. Some were accused of having told their members to vote against the referendum.

As the 2020 elections neared, Burundian authorities and ruling party youths carried out dozens of beatings, arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, and killings against real and suspected political opposition members.[6] In a concerted campaign against people perceived to be opposing the ruling party, there appeared to have been an increase in abuses after the registration of a new opposition party in February 2019, the National Congress for Freedom (Congrès national pour la liberté, CNL). The CNL was formerly known as the FNL.

The Commission of Inquiry (CoI) on Burundi mandated by the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) confirmed new cases of summary execution, enforced disappearance, arbitrary arrest and detention, sexual violence, torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment in 2018. The CoI concluded that the perpetrators of these crimes—the SNR, the police, and members of the Imbonerakure—operate in “a climate of impunity perpetuated by the lack of an independent judiciary.” The commission for the first time implicated Nkurunziza directly, reporting recurring calls for hatred and violence.[7]

The May 2020 elections took place in the absence of any international observation mission[8] and, on election day, authorities blocked access to social media[9] and messaging apps throughout the country, restricting independent reporting and information sharing. 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.[10]

Évariste Ndayishimiye’s presidency (2020-2022)

After August 2020, security deteriorated and there were several reports of clashes between security forces and armed groups, as well as attacks by unidentified assailants, particularly in provinces bordering the Democratic Republic of Congo. In some of these attacks, Imbonerakure members supported the national army. Groups of unidentified armed men were also reported to be responsible for random attacks resulting in civilian casualties. The Burundian authorities denounced these as “terrorist” or “criminal” acts and committed abuses against alleged perpetrators and civilians. 

According to the report of the CoI, men suspected of belonging to, or assisting, armed groups were executed by police or national intelligence agents throughout 2021.[11] Dozens of real or suspected members of opposition groups have been victims of enforced disappearances. Many people were also detained by the SNR and allegedly subjected to severe torture, rape, and ill-treatment. Local and international monitoring groups, including Human Rights Watch, documented cases of torture of people suspected of collaborating with armed groups. The CoI on Burundi documented cases where victims died in detention. 

Human Rights Watch found that on November 16, 2021, Imbonerakure members and local administrators took Innocent Barutwanayo, a member of the CNL, into custody in Matongo commune. Barutwanayo was taken first to the Matongo commune office, then transferred to an intelligence service detention cell, and then to a local police station, said people close to him and other reports.[12] He was tortured and transferred to a hospital, apparently due to the serious injuries he suffered in detention.

Several national intelligence and police officers transferred him from the hospital to the intelligence service headquarters in Bujumbura around November 25. A local administrator informed his family members on December 3 that they should collect his body at Prince Louis Rwagasore hospital’s morgue in Bujumbura. They did not have the funds to do so.

The national human rights commission (Commission Nationale Indépendante des Droits de l’Homme du Burundi, CNIDH), said in its 2021 annual report that it had recorded the case of “I.B.,” who was taken into custody on November 16 in Kayanza, and later died of injuries from “serious beatings.”[13] The CNIDH indicated that the Matongo commune administrator said the victim was beaten by the population. However, this claim contradicts information received by Human Rights Watch from witnesses present at the time of Barutwanayo’s arrest.

In addition, a source who saw him while he was hospitalized at Kayanza hospital, in custody of intelligence and police agents, said he had been severely beaten on the buttocks, ribs and chest, and could barely sit due to the severity of his injuries. The CNIDH also said that investigations were ongoing, and, in December 2021, announced it had investigated two cases of torture and that those responsible were being held to account, without identifying the victims or the perpetrators.[14] Human Rights Watch raised Barutwanayo’s case in its letters to the authorities and the CNIDH, and requested information on steps taken to ensure those responsible are held accountable, but has received no response.

The national intelligence service runs a well-known detention facility in Cibitoke, where people suspected of working with armed groups are held.[15] Human Rights Watch interviewed five former detainees who were held in this facility, where they said they witnessed abuse and were tortured between September 2020 and February 2022.

Three of the men were farmers, including two who often traveled to Congo to look for work. They all said they had no political affiliations and had no contact with rebel groups in neighboring Congo. The fourth said he was targeted for his political activities. All said they heard detainees being driven away in the middle of the night. One man who was detained at the national intelligence facility in December 2020 said police officers drunkenly gloated about killing detainees and throwing their bodies into the Rusizi river.

A fifth farmer and member of the opposition party from Cibitoke said he was detained at his house by men wearing ruling party t-shirts around 9 p.m. on February 12, 2022, in a case that could amount to an enforced disappearance.[16] He said that when he saw the t-shirts, “that’s when I understood they were Imbonerakure members. There were also SNR agents present. When I got into the car, they blindfolded me and then I knew my life was in danger.” He was taken to a detention facility he believed to be the SNR detention cell in Cibitoke. He said:

I was put into a small room alone. I was never around anyone else during those two weeks … they accused me of working with [the armed opposition group] RED-Tabara against the government. To tell you the truth, I don’t know anyone in that movement. I think they arrested me because I am not a member of the [ruling] party. I am with the CNL and they know it. They beat me with sticks, electric cables, and kicked me to make me confess to working with RED-Tabara. They did it every morning and evening, the hardest was when they were drunk. They just beat you without caring if they kill you.…

After two weeks, he was moved to a different, unidentified location, where he said he could hear people screaming at night. After his release, no investigation has been initiated and the victim lives in hiding, although his case was reported to local authorities.

Burundian and international organizations have continued to document cases of torture and the authorities’ failure to hold those responsible accountable. For example, in March 2021, the Burundi Human Rights Initiative (BHRI) documented several cases of torture and the government’s contradictory explanations of what took place.[17]

The Burundian Criminal Procedure Code in article 34 states that detainees can be held for a maximum of seven days, renewable only once, before judges decide whether they should be provisionally released or remain in detention.[18] A delay of seven days after detention appears to violate article 9 (3) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)[19] that states all detainees should be brought before a judge or equivalent “promptly.” In any event, this period is routinely disregarded, with many detainees held in police or SNR custody for longer than the maximum period provided by the law, and with no due process. 

Impunity for SNR, Police, and Imbonerakure members

In 2016, the Committee expressed concern for “the impunity that the perpetrators of violations seem to have been enjoying since the political crisis began in April 2015” and found it regrettable that “the State party provided virtually no official data that would allow the Committee to ascertain whether the State party is honouring its obligations under the Convention with regard to investigations.” Since the beginning of the crisis in 2015, several security officials have been identified by Burundian and international human rights organizations as responsible for overseeing or taking part in torture,[20] and yet, Human Rights Watch is not aware of any cases of transparent prosecutions and convictions for torture, leading to punitive sanctions against those found responsible and reparations for victims.

Cases involving opposition party members were often allocated to judicial officials known to be sympathetic to the ruling party. In some instances, judges openly declared the cases were “political.”[21] This lack of independence in Burundi’s judicial and prosecutorial system contravenes Article 12 of the Convention. Human Rights Watch is not aware of any torture victim who has been compensated or received redress for their treatment. This violates Article 14 of the Convention.[22]

After he took power, Ndayishimiye made some efforts to rein in members of the Imbonerakure and their involvement in human rights abuse was less visibly apparent. However, Imbonerakure members have continued to arrest, beat, and kill suspected opponents, sometimes in collaboration with or with the support of local administrative officials, police, or intelligence agents. Révérien Ndikuriyo, Secretary General of the CNDD-FDD and a hardliner within the party, made several incendiary speeches during gatherings of CNDD-FDD and Imbonerakure members. In August 2022, he called on the Imbonerakure to continue night patrols and to kill any “troublemakers”[23] and attacked international human rights organizations. Throughout 2022, Imbonerakure members followed training programs on “patriotism” across the country.[24]

Non-compliance with United Nations human rights mechanisms

In its concluding observations, the Committee expressed concern about the government of Burundi’s lack of cooperation with the Committee and attempts to block engagement by Burundian civil society.[25] On July 29, 2016, the Public Prosecutor at the Court of Appeal of Bujumbura wrote a letter requesting the President of the Bar Association to disbar the lawyers Armel Niyongere, Lambert Nigarura, Dieudonné Bashirahishize and Vital Nshimirimana.[26] These lawyers had contributed to the drafting of a joint shadow report submitted to the Committee for the consideration of the special report of Burundi, and three of them had attended the interactive dialogue between Burundi and the Committee on behalf of the Burundian civil society organizations they represented. On December 21, 2016, the Committee deplored Burundi's lack of cooperation in the individual complaints procedure and its failure to implement the Committee's decisions in all cases where human rights violations were found.[27]

In September 2016, the UNHRC adopted a resolution to establish the CoI, mandated to investigate human rights violations perpetrated in Burundi since April 2015, and to determine whether they may constitute international crimes. Burundian officials refused to work with the CoI. The Office of the UN High Com­mis­sioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) closed its country office in February 2019 at the request of the government of Burundi. In its last report, the CoI concluded on September 16, 2021, that grave human rights violations continued to be committed in Burundi and that “no structural reform has been undertaken to durably improve the situation.”[28]  

Despite these findings, the European Union delegation in Geneva tabled a resolution at the September 2021 session of the UNHRC, adopted by a vote, which ended the mandate of the CoI and instead created a special rapporteur mandate. The Burundian government has repeatedly rejected the mandate and announced it would never give the mandate holder access to the country.

Questions and recommendations:

  1. What steps have the Burundian authorities taken to develop a robust, independent National Preventive Mechanism (NPM) as set out in the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment? [29] The NPM should include members of civil society and government officials who would regularly visit detention facilities and make recommendations to Burundian authorities.
  2.  What steps have the Burundian authorities taken to urgently investigate torture and ill-treatment at SNR detention facilities, as well as in police custody? What investigations and prosecutions of intelligence agents and police officials involved in ordering, supervising, or carrying out torture and ill-treatment have taken place? The Committee should ask the Burundian authorities for specific information on the progress of these investigations. The investigations and prosecutions should be fully independent of the individuals being investigated and of their chain of command.
  3. The Burundian authorities should cooperate with international investigations into serious human rights abuses in Burundi, including by special procedures.
  4. What steps have the Burundian authorities taken to allow detainees regular access to lawyers at all intelligence, police, and other detention facilities across the country?
  5. How have the Burundian authorities indicated to the security forces and intelligence service that extrajudicial killings will not be tolerated and that any individual suspected of carrying out, ordering, or in any way participating in unlawful killings will be brought to justice.
  6. The Burundian authorities should investigate the role of individuals in the security forces and intelligence service alleged to have participated in or ordered unlawful killings and suspend them from active duty until investigations have been completed. They should also investigate and prosecute Imbonerakure members suspected of crimes. If there is sufficient and credible evidence, ensure that these individuals, as well as other individuals involved in such killings, are charged and tried, according to due process and in conformity with Burundian law and international standards.
  7. What steps have the Burundian authorities taken to strengthen the independence of the judiciary, reinforce witness protection, and guard against political interference?

[1] Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (Convention against Torture), adopted December 10, 1984, G.A. res. 39/46, annex, 39 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 51) at 197, U.N. Doc. A/39/51 (1984), entered into force June 26, 1987.

[2] United Nations Committee against Torture, "Concluding observations of the Committee on the special report of Burundi requested under article 19 (1) in fine of the Convention." CAT/C/BDI/CO/2/Add.1, September 9, 2016,

[3] Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (Convention against Torture), adopted December 10, 1984, G.A. res. 39/46, annex, 39 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 51) at 197, U.N. Doc. A/39/51 (1984), entered into force June 26, 1987, art. 1.

[4]“Burundi: Killings, Abuse Ahead of Referendum,” Human Rights Watch news release, May 18, 2018,

[5] Ibid.

[6] Human Rights Watch, “Burundi: Rampant Abuses Against Opposition,” Human Rights Watch Presser plus, June 12, 2019,

[7] UN Human Rights Council, Report of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Burundi, A/HRC/39/63, September 2018,

[8] Lewis Mudge, "A Perfect Storm Is Brewing in Burundi," commentary, Human Rights Watch Dispatch, May 14, 2020,

[9] Open Observatory of Network Interference, Burundi blocks social media amid 2020 general election, (Open Observatory of Network Interference, 2020),

[10]« Bulletin bimensuel sur le processus électoral de 2020 au Burundi, » Iteka league’s bimonthly newsletter, Number 03, May 18, 2020,

[11] UN Human Rights Council, Report of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Burundi,
­A/HRC/48/68, September 2021,

[12] Burundi Human Rights Initiative, The road ahead. Will Burundi bring its torturers to justice? (Burundi Human Rights Initiative, 2022),

[13] Independent National Commission on Human Rights of Burundi, Annual Report 2021 Edition (Bujumbura: CNIDH, 2021)

[14] "Communiqué relatif à 2 cas de torture signalés au SNR", Independent National Commission on Human Rights of Burundi, CNIDH news release, December 10, 2021,

[15] “Burundi: Allegations of Killings, Disappearances, Torture,” Human Rights Watch Presser plus, September 17, 2021,

[16] “Burundi: Suspected Opponents Killed, Detained, Tortured,” Human Rights Watch Presser plus, May 18, 2022,

[17] Burundi Human Rights Initiative, Rumonge: torture and killings in the name of security (Burundi Human Rights Initiative, 2021),

[18] Burundian Criminal Procedural Code, May 11, 2018,, art. 34.

[19] International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), adopted December 16, 1966, G.A. Res. 2200A (XXI), 21 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 16) at 52, U.N. Doc. A/6316 (1966), 999 U.N.T.S. 171, entered into force March 23, 1976, art. 9 (3).

[20] Burundi Human Rights Initiative, Behind the Gate: A rise in torture and disappearances (Burundi Human Rights Initiative, November 2021).,

[21] “Burundi: Free Forcibly Returned Refugees,” Human Rights Watch news release, March 8, 2021,

[22] Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (Convention against Torture), adopted December 10, 1984, G.A. res. 39/46, annex, 39 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 51) at 197, U.N. Doc. A/39/51 (1984), entered into force June 26, 1987, art. 12, art. 14.

[23] “Global Update - Statement by Nada Al-Nashif UN Acting High Commissioner for Human Rights,” OHCHR statement, September 12, 2022,

[24] Clémentine de Montjoye, "Burundi Leader Lashes Out at Rights Groups," commentary, Human Rights Watch dispatch, August 5, 2022

[25] United Nations Committee against Torture, "Concluding observations of the Committee on the special report of Burundi requested under article 19 (1) in fine of the Convention." CAT/C/BDI/CO/2/Add.1, September 9, 2016,

[26] Ibid.

[27]“Burundi: UN Torture Committee deplores lack of cooperation in torture complaints procedure,” United Nations press release, December 21, 2021,

[28] UN Human Rights Council, Report of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Burundi,
­A/HRC/48/68, September 2021,

[29] Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, adopted December 18, 2022, G. A. res A/RES/57/199, entered into force on June 22, 2006.

Your tax deductible gift can help stop human rights violations and save lives around the world.

Region / Country