Nairobi — Burundian authorities should halt their crackdown on opposition party members. Officials should also quash a March 21, 2014 verdict in which 48 people were handed sentences ranging from two years to life in prison.
The trial of 70 people, most of them opposition party members, lasted no more than one day, and neither the defendants nor their lawyers were able to prepare their defense properly, Human Rights Watch said. Those charged with credible offenses should receive a retrial that meets international fair trial standards.
"The trial of opposition party members was blatantly unfair and seriously flawed from beginning to end," said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch.
"The Burundian government should stop any further politicization of the justice system and ensure the courts are not used to collectively punish opponents ahead of the 2015 national elections."
Human Rights Watch has documented a pattern of restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly in Burundi over the past four years.
Since late 2013, there have been escalating confrontations between the ruling party and the opposition, and persistent harassment of opposition parties by state agents and ruling party members. Civil society activists and independent journalists have also been targeted. Most recently, a prominent human rights activist was put on trial on July 4, accused of endangering state security.
On March 8 and 9, police arrested more than 70 people in the capital, Bujumbura. The majority were members or supporters of the opposition Movement for Solidarity and Democracy (MSD) party.
A first wave of arrests occurred on the morning of March 8, when police detained 22 people who were jogging in the capital. The police alleged that they were MSD members using their Saturday morning exercise - a common activity in Bujumbura - as a cover for an unauthorized demonstration. Government officials claimed the MSD members were planning "an insurrection."
Police trucks blocked roads leading to the town center, and the police used teargas to disperse joggers and people they suspected were linked to the MSD. Witnesses, including some of those arrested, told Human Rights Watch that in many cases, the police targeted people simply because they were wearing sports clothes.
As news of the arrests spread, MSD members gathered at the party's headquarters and police were deployed outside the building. Amid rising tensions, MSD youths took two policemen hostage and held them in the party headquarters for several hours.
After attempts by representatives of a Burundian human rights organization, the United Nations, and the National Independent Human Rights Commission to negotiate the release of the policemen failed, the police opened an assault on the building, using teargas and live bullets. At least nine MSD members and several policemen were injured.
The police then carried out a second wave of arrests, rounding up at least 17 people at the MSD headquarters. The following day, they returned to the area and arrested at least 28 people.
"Those responsible for taking the two policemen hostage should be brought to justice, but their offense does not justify the heavy-handed and disproportionate police tactics nor the dozens of arbitrary arrests," Bekele said.
In a group trial on March 18, 70 defendants were tried on charges of rebellion, insults and acts of violence against law enforcement agents, grievous bodily harm, and participation in an insurrectional movement. During the trial, which Human Rights Watch observed, little attempt was made to establish individual culpability.
The defendants and their lawyers complained that they did not have time to read their case files before the trial. Many of the lawyers walked out of the trial in protest at the unfair proceedings.
On March 21, the High Court in Bujumbura sentenced 21 defendants to life in prison, 10 defendants to 10 years in prison, and 14 defendants to five years.
Twenty-two defendants were acquitted. Three younger defendants, all about 17 years old, were tried by a separate chamber for minors on March 19 and sentenced on March 26 to two years in prison.
One of the defendants told Human Rights Watch: "There was no real logic behind who was sentenced and who was acquitted. The accusations were the same for everyone: 'rebels, rebels, rebels.'... Those arrested doing sports, those arrested at the MSD headquarters, those arrested on the roads, all of us were 'rebels.'"
The brief questioning by police after their arrest was "a mere formality," said one defendant.
"They had already decided we would go to prison." When he explained to the police officer questioning him that he was on the way to work when he was arrested, the police officer told him: "You are already in prison."
Those found guilty appealed on March 28. The date of the appeal hearing has not been announced.
"If the 2015 elections are to be free and fair, it is crucial for the government to end its repression and make every effort to prevent tension from spiraling further," Bekele said. "Governments and donors engaged in Burundi should raise their voices and demand an end to the crackdown on critics."
Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 20 people in Bujumbura in April about the events of March 8 and their aftermath, including people who were arrested, other witnesses to these events, government and police officials, members of political parties, representatives of human rights organizations, lawyers, journalists, and United Nations representatives. Human Rights Watch also observed the trial at the High Court in Bujumbura and obtained a copy of the court judgment. The information below is based on this research and trial observation.
The arrests took place in three phases: a first wave on the morning of March 8, a second that afternoon, and a third on March 9. Those arrested included people from a range of backgrounds and professions, MSD party representatives, and a few members of other opposition parties.
Morning of March 8
Early in the morning of March 8, the police began arresting people who were jogging in various areas of Bujumbura, including Nyakabiga, Jabe, Bwiza, and Musaga, as well as near the center of town.
The police alleged that they were planning to converge in the center of town for an unauthorized demonstration and tried to disperse them with teargas.
The arrests appeared arbitrary, and the police picked people off the streets on the basis of their sports clothes, according to some of those arrested and passers-by, some of whom were briefly stopped by the police.
The police beat some people at the time of their arrest and hit others who tried to run away. One witness told Human Rights Watch he saw policemen hitting a man of about 30 on the back of his head with their belts until he bled, shouting at him to get into the police truck.
The police arrested 21 men and one woman, detained them, and questioned them briefly with a set of prepared questions. Among other things, the police asked whether the suspects were carrying plastic bags, allegedly to protect themselves against teargas.
The police asked some of them if they were MSD members and, without warrants, checked their phones for text messages, looking for evidence of plans for a coordinated demonstration.
In most cases, the questioning was cursory and lasted no more than a few minutes. A man arrested near the center of town told Human Rights Watch:
The OPJ [police judicial officer] questioned me. He asked: "Did you know what was being prepared? What were you doing from this morning until now? Do you know Alexis [Sinduhije, the MSD president]?" I answered his questions.
They made me read the statement and I signed it. He went away and came back with a paper that said I was arrested for "rebellion." I asked: "How can I be accused of rebellion?" He said: "I don't know, I'm not the one who brought you here." I told him he should produce the evidence. He said: "You're wasting your time. It's already finished. Instead of going home, you're going to take the road to the prison."
The group of 22 was taken to the prosecutor's office, where they were asked similar questions, then were transferred to Mpimba prison on the same day.
Clashes Between Police and MSD Members
Following these arrests, MSD members went to the party's headquarters in the Kinindo area of Bujumbura, where Sinduhije joined them. Police lined up outside the building and the situation deteriorated into a violent confrontation after MSD youths took two policemen hostage.
Sinduhije demanded that the police release the MSD members they had arrested, in exchange for releasing the two hostages, and that the police leave the party headquarters.
Pierre Claver Mbonimpa, the president of the Burundian human rights organization Association for the Protection of Human Rights and Detained Persons (APRODH), commissioners of the National Independent Human Rights Commission, and representatives of the UN Mission in Burundi (BNUB) all tried to negotiate between MSD members and the police.
The negotiators persuaded the MSD members to turn the two policemen's weapons over to them, but the MSD members would not release the policemen.
The police then began an assault on the building, which the Bujumbura prosecutor authorized, using teargas and live bullets. The police opened fire directly at the MSD building, which they and the government justified on the basis of their contention that some MSD members were armed. Some sources alleged that the police fired inside as well as outside the party headquarters.
Several MSD members were seriously injured. At least nine were hospitalized, some for several weeks; at least one was still in the hospital in early June. Some had bullet wounds; others had been beaten, kicked or hit with truncheons.
Some MSD members threw stones, injuring several policemen. The two police hostages were released in the evening, with minor injuries. Several senior police officers were present during these events.
Witnesses who spoke to Human Rights Watch, including people independent of any party affiliation who were at the scene of the clash, did not support the government and police claim that the MSD members had firearms and grenades. These sources confirmed that some MSD members threw stones but did not see them with firearms or grenades.
The police arrested many MSD members at the party headquarters on March 8. The following day, the police returned to the area, searched numerous houses in the neighborhood, and carried out further arrests.
Sinduhije escaped during the police assault on the party headquarters and has since left Burundi. The authorities issued an arrest warrant for him for alleged insurrection.
The trial on March 18 took place under a provision of the Burundian Code of Criminal Procedure that allows for an accelerated procedure for offenders caught in the act. However, some of the defendants were arrested several hours before some of the events in question, and others the following day.
Despite the fact that the defendants were placed into three categories - a first group arrested at the MSD headquarters, a second group arrested during the police search of houses surrounding the MSD headquarters, and a third during "insurrection disguised as collective sports"- almost all of them faced the same charges, as reflected in the court's judgment: rebellion, insults and acts of violence against law enforcement agents, grievous bodily harm, and participation in an insurrectional movement. Some of the more detailed accusations against them, read out in court, were very similar too.
Some defendants said they did not even know the precise accusations against them before they were brought to court and had little or no opportunity to consult their lawyers.
Some met their lawyers for the first time in court on the day of the trial. Many of the lawyers walked out of the courtroom to protest the numerous irregularities.
A few stayed and attempted to assist their clients but said they lacked sufficient information to argue the case. Some of the accused tried to defend themselves without a lawyer. Others refused as they had not even seen their case files. Nevertheless the judges proceeded with the trial. According to the official judgment, only 14 defendants pleaded in court.
Some lawyers told Human Rights Watch in April that they had still not been able to read their clients' case files. One lawyer said: "We don't have copies of any of these documents. About 20 lawyers were able to quickly consult one copy. We just read 'the 70 did XYZ' but we couldn't see enough of the file to be able to defend our clients."
The 22 who were acquitted were released three days after the judgment. One of them overheard a prison official say: "They are MSD. They can suffer a bit more. They can stay two more nights." Several confided to Human Rights Watch that they were afraid after their release. Some were threatened by people close to the ruling party.
Following the arrests, before the trial, Interior Minister Edouard Nduwimana suspended the MSD for four months. A ministerial order of March 14 lists various grounds for the suspension, including the incident in which MSD members took the two policemen hostage.
It refers to statements by Sinduhije on the radio on March 8 that it describes as insulting and incendiary toward state agents, and alleges that Sinduhije called on his members to carry out "acts of insurrection, hatred and violence." It also alleges that weapons, ammunition, and drugs were seized in the MSD building. The MSD did not challenge the suspension, which was lifted on July 14.
Some government and police officials conceded to Human Rights Watch that the police were overwhelmed by the events at the MSD headquarters.
At the same time, they justified the police shooting on the basis that two of their men had been taken hostage and contended that some of the MSD members were armed. The interior minister described the situation as "pure and simple resistance" by the MSD.
Responding to concerns about arbitrary arrests on the morning of March 8, Nduwimana told Human Rights Watch that "the MSD revolt was planned."
He claimed that MSD members had intended to gather at specific locations, with organizers in each area, and that some demonstrators carried clubs and truncheons. When Human Rights Watch raised concerns about the unfair trial, he said people should wait for the outcome of the appeal.
The director general of police, André Ndayambaje, described March 8 as "a hard day for the police." He told Human Rights Watch that the police had received advance information that "an insurrectional movement" was being prepared and that opposition members were planning to use the cover of group sports "to demonstrate and overthrow the government in the style of the Arab spring."
He said that police were deployed to stop people from jogging and that anyone not involved in the demonstration was free to go home. He stated that grenade explosions and shots had come from inside the MSD headquarters before the police went in.
UPRONA Women's Day March
In a separate incident on the same day, police clashed with other opposition supporters during a march organized for International Women's Day by the Union of Burundian Women, the women's league of the opposition party UPRONA.
Although the government and police claimed the march was unauthorized, they initially allowed it to proceed. However, they did not allow the protesters to march to the UPRONA headquarters, because of a prior dispute that had split the party in two: only members of the pro-government wing are allowed access to the party headquarters. The women turned back.
Soon afterward, police clashed with some young men who had joined the march. The government and police claimed that some of them were MSD members.
There were scuffles, and the police threw teargas to disperse the protesters. The police arrested several people. Video footage viewed by Human Rights Watch showed police hitting some protesters during the arrests. The police later released the protesters without charge.
Crackdown Against Government Critics
The events of March 8 occurred against a backdrop of increasing political tension as Burundi prepares for national elections in 2015.
Since the 2010 elections, which most opposition parties boycotted and the ruling National Council for the Defense of Democracy-Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD) won with a large majority, Human Rights Watch has documented a pattern of restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly, and periodic crackdowns against perceived government critics.
As the 2015 elections, scheduled for May to September, draw nearer, members of opposition parties have been arbitrarily arrested, and state agents and youths from the ruling party have repeatedly prevented or disrupted their meetings.
Government officials have also attempted to co-opt or split opposition parties. Most recently, in early 2014, UPRONA, the only opposition party represented in government after the 2010 elections, broke into two factions as a result of protracted divisions and, according to UPRONA members, alleged interference by government officials in the choice of party leaders. This triggered a political crisis and prompted the resignation of all three UPRONA ministers.
The government recognizes only the pro-CNDD-FDD wing of UPRONA.
Human Rights Watch has documented how the imbonerakure, the youth league of the ruling party, has frequently been involved in attempts to intimidate or obstruct opposition parties, and has carried out acts of violence and other abuses against opposition members and supporters. Opposition party youth groups have sometimes retaliated. In several provinces, there have been clashes between imbonerakure and youths of the MSD and other parties, with violence on both sides. Political parties have also damaged each other's properties and buildings and torn down each other's flags.
State agents have also repeatedly threatened independent activists and journalists and blocked their activities. On May 15, Burundi's most prominent human rights activist, Pierre Claver Mbonimpa, president of APRODH, was arrested after speaking on the radio about allegations that young Burundians were being armed and given military training in the Democratic Republic of Congo. He remains in prison, charged with endangering state security and using false documents. His trial began on July 4.
On July 8, the court rejected his lawyers' request for conditional release on the grounds of his advanced age and ill health. The mayor of Bujumbura and the interior minister prevented organizations from holding a march in support of Mbonimpa on June 16. Human Rights Watch has called for Mbonimpa's immediate release.