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Burundi: Spate of arbitrary arrests, torture

This statement was originally published on hrw.org on 6 August 2015.

Burundian intelligence officials, police, and youth from the ruling party have arbitrarily arrested and ill-treated scores of suspected opponents, Human Rights Watch said today. Officials accuse many of the mostly young men arrested of trying to leave the country and planning to join an armed rebellion.

Human Rights Watch documented more than 148 cases between April and July 2015 in four provinces and in the capital, Bujumbura, involving intelligence officials, police, and members of the ruling National Council for the Defense of Democracy-Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD) youth league, known as Imbonerakure (“those who see far” in Kirundi). Most of these cases occurred in June and July. Many of those arrested were beaten, tortured, or otherwise ill-treated.

Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 80 victims, lawyers, human rights activists, judicial officials, and other sources in these four provinces and in Bujumbura. Human Rights Watch is also investigating reports of similar cases in other provinces. The total number of cases across the country is likely much higher. To protect the security of victims and witnesses, Human Rights Watch is not making public the locations of some of the incidents.

“The Imbonerakure have no legal right to arrest anyone, yet they have been stopping people arbitrarily, beating them, and handing them over to the intelligence services, who have tortured some of them,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The Burundian government should publicly order all Imbonerakure to stop arresting people and ensure that Imbonerakure and intelligence officials responsible for ill-treatment and torture are brought to justice.”

Since demonstrations against President Pierre Nkurunziza's bid for a third term began in April and were brutally suppressed by the police, international attention has largely focused on human rights abuses in the capital. However, numerous abuses have also been taking place across Burundi's provinces, away from the media spotlight. The government's closure of Burundi's main private radio stations – one of the few sources of information on events outside the capital – has meant that many of these abuses have gone unreported.

More than 140,000 Burundians have fled the country since March, seeking refuge in neighboring Rwanda, Tanzania, or the Democratic Republic of Congo.

There have been persistent rumors that some Burundians have been forming an armed opposition movement in exile. On July 10, there was an attack by an unidentified armed group that allegedly crossed from Rwanda into Kayanza province, in northern Burundi. Authorities arrested more than 200 people who they claim were part of this group, some of whom are on trial. These events occurred against the backdrop of local and parliamentary elections on June 29 and presidential elections on July 21.

Victims in several provinces told Human Rights Watch that Imbonerakure arrested and beat them, sometimes in the presence of intelligence officials. They described being hit with sticks and clubs, forced to roll in muddy pits, and punched in the face. Imbonerakure often handed those they arrested directly to intelligence officials, who transferred them to offices of the national intelligence service (Service national de renseignement, SNR).

Once there, former detainees said SNR agents and policemen beat them with electric cables to force them to admit to trumped-up charges, such as planning to join an armed rebellion in Rwanda. Others were hit with gun butts and heavy wooden rods. In some cases, SNR agents forced them to undress and engage in humiliating and painful exercises, such as hopping like a frog and walking like a duck, or making them crawl on their elbows in gravel.

One man told Human Rights Watch that SNR agents forced him and other detainees to stand on their heads while they beat them. A senior SNR official in the province gave orders to his driver and police to beat the detainees. SNR agents said to the detainees: “You imbeciles! You are mad at only 10 years [the period Nkurunziza has been in power] whereas you governed for more than 30 years [presumably referring to Burundi's long period of Tutsi-dominated rule].”

A justice official privately confirmed to Human Rights Watch that some members of the SNR tortured detainees. Human Rights Watch tried repeatedly to contact Telesphore Bigirimana, the spokesman for the SNR, but was unable to reach him.

When contacted by telephone, Pascal Nyabenda, president of the CNDD-FDD at the national level, refused to talk to Human Rights Watch.

Denis Karera, the national president of the Imbonerakure, told Human Rights Watch in a meeting that he was not aware of all the allegations against individual Imbonerakure. He said some people committed offenses then tried to blame them on Imbonerakure. He said: “I'm against all violence. Whether it's an Imbonerakure or not, I can't tolerate it. They should be tried and punished in accordance with the law. An Imbonerakure has no privilege over other citizens. Nobody is above the law. If an Imbonerakure is doing something illegal, he should be punished.”

Judicial officials, lawyers and human rights activists told Human Rights Watch that SNR and ruling party officials heavily influenced judicial decisions or overruled decisions by prosecutors and others. Cases involving opposition party members were often allocated to judicial officials sympathetic to the ruling party.

A senior justice official said that in some cases, ruling party members controlled the fate of detainees and gave orders to the police to fabricate accusations against certain people. Some prosecutors collaborated with intelligence agents to determine what charges to file against individuals arrested by the SNR or by Imbonerakure and whether to keep them in detention.

One high-level justice official told Human Rights Watch: “The justice system is not independent. Judicial authorities can't act independently according to their conscience. We can release someone, then we get a call immediately and [CNDD-FDD] party members give an order. When Imbonerakure arrest people, we watch powerlessly. We can't do anything about it.”

The United Nations and the African Union (AU) should consider deploying observers to monitor how the justice system handles cases of alleged opponents and to report on violations of judicial procedures, Human Rights Watch said. They should also monitor and report on government or ruling party interference in the justice system. This could be one of the functions of the new team of AU human rights observers being deployed to Burundi.

The UN special rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, and the UN special rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, should urgently visit Burundi and investigate recent abuses, Human Rights Watch said.

“The Burundian intelligence services behave as if they are completely unaccountable,” Bekele said. “Those in power have politicized the justice system, turning it into a weapon against the opposition. The authorities should release detainees against whom there is no evidence of criminal activity, and ensure that the judiciary can function independently and that human rights violations can be investigated without fear.”

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