12 January 2016

Burundi: Torture Rife in Burundi, Opposition Claims

Burundi's opposition claims police, troops and officials have been torturing and abusing suspected opponents for months. There has been no independent probe. Victims have been talking to DW about their ordeal.

"They tied me up, beat me with their belts and kicked me, out on th street in broad daylight," a Bujumbura resident told DW. The man wishes to remain anonymous. Security forces arrested him in the city's Cibitoke neighborhood because he took part in the protests against President Nkurunziza's third term in office. They brought him to Ndadaye police station. "We had to lie down. They beat our backs with barbed wire. It was terrible," the man said.

"They beat us as if we were snakes," a woman, who also does not want to be named, remembers. "Some of us were beaten more severely than others. It depended on which police officers caught you and perhaps what they accused you of," she said quietly.

Intimidation, torture and killings

The accusations against the government, the army and Burundi's police are severe and precise. In August 2015, the rights group Amnesty International reported that the police and intelligence agents had tortured suspects in order to crush the protests. In the meantime victims and witnesses have been giving more details to DW. "A colonel who works at the defense ministry arrests people because they took part in demonstrations and tortures them in his own house. Sometimes over several days," one man said. At one point, three victims escaped. The colonel pursued them, shooting one person on the spot.

Nkurunziza's acting spokesman, Jean-Claude Karerwa Ndenzako denied these allegations. "I haven't heard of these things," he said. The current mood in Bujumbura is relatively calm and the government is trying to find and punish the perpetrators, he told reporters. "Not everybody who is dressed as a police officer or soldier, is one," Ndenzako said. Fake or stolen uniforms are allegedly available in the city. "We need time and patience for such investigations so that we can hold the perpetrators accountable," he said.

Fear and violence have plagued Burundi for months. In April 2015, President Nkurunziza announced that he wanted to run for a third term in office. Burundi's constitution only allows for two terms. But Nkurunziza argued that his first term didn't count because he was not elected by the people, but by parliament. Burundi had just emerged from a civil war. Nkurunziza's candidacy sparked protests which were brutally put down by the government. In July 2015, Nkurunziza was re-elected.

According to estimates the UN, over 300 people have been killed since the start of the protests. The true figure could be much higher. The UN also estimates that over 235,000 people have either fled Burundi or have been internally displaced. Human rights workers and journalists have barely been able to do their jobs in the country. There have been repeated reports of abuses, intimidation and targeted killings.

Who's behind the violence?

"Burundi's main problem is that the situation is so chaotic and complex," explained Gesines Ames from the Ecumenical Network Central Africa in Berlin. The violence comes various sides - from the Burundian government and the opposition. But the government is not ready to it and allow free reporting by the press, she said. "This is why the violence continues and it is getting increasingly difficult to ascertain who is behind it."

Ames is worried by the manner in which authorities are targeting entire neighborhoods, which have been branded as opposition strongholds. "Certain areas are cordoned off and nobody knows what goes on inside anymore. Lawlessness abounds," Ames explained. Many men who took part in the protests have fled. "Many of the women and children who remain behind are therefore alone and we hear more and more reports of sexual abuse," she added.

Ames says negotiations, international pressure and a UN and African Union peacekeeping mission are needed to restore security. In Novermber 2015, the UN Security Council condemned the torture and rights abuses in Burundi. But the message has gone unheeded. Just last week, Burundi's government withdrew from talks with the opposition and civil society groups. They were postponed indefinitely.

Antediteste Niragira, Konstanze von Kotze and Carole Assignon contributed to this report.

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