A Burundian man who refused to register to vote in the country's forthcoming constitutional referendum has been killed in police custody, according to Burundian activists. Burundians go to the polls on 17 May for a referendum that could enable President Pierre Nkurunziza to stand for a further two seven-year terms from 2020.
"Simon Bizimana refused to register for the coming constitutional referendum in Burundi and was arrested in the Cendajuru commune in the east of Burundi on 14 February," Pacifique Nininahazwe, president of civil society group FOCODE, told RFI.
"He was beaten, tortured and on 14 March he was hospitalised. He died last weekend," said Nininahazwe, an activist who previously campaigned against Nkurunziza's third term.
The referendum on 17 May could enable Burundi's president to stay in power until 2034. A decree signed on Sunday said that those wishing to take part in the official campaign must register with the Independent National Election Commission between 23 March and 6 April, according to AFP news agency.
The police denied that they were responsible for Bizimana's death, saying he died from natural causes.
"Simon Bizimana of Cankuzo Province died from malaria," the Burundian police said in a tweet. "He had been provisionally released and was at home for nearly a week. He was arrested on 14 February by Burundi's police for obstructing the electoral process. He was never tortured and was released from prison in good health," the tweet added.
Activists refute the explanation by police, pointing to a medical certificate also published by the police.
"How can they say he died from malaria when even the paper from the physician is saying they didn't find malaria after medical examination," Nininahazwe said by telephone.
Nkurunziza has ruled Burundi since 2005. He ran for a third five-year term and was re-elected in 2015 despite a two-term limit under the constitution. The term limits were part of the Arusha peace agreement that helped bring an end to the country's 1993-2006 civil war.
"The spokesperson of the police confirmed that they had an order from the government to arrest people who are opposed to the project of Nkurunziza's constitution," said Nininahazwe.
"There is one administrative authority in the north of Burundi who said, 'people who are against this project of the constitution must be killed'," the activist added. "We're considering Simon Bizimana a martyr for this struggle for our constitution and the Arusha accord."
Opposition to Nkurunziza's third term led to protests and a subsequent crackdown by security forces as well as a failed coup attempt. In its 2018 report, Human Rights Group described "scores of lives" having been claimed by continued violence last year. "Dead bodies of people killed in unknown circumstances were regularly found across the country," the rights group said.