The European Parliament today adopted a resolution condemning the continued deterioration of the human rights situation in Burundi ahead of the May 2020 elections. It also called on authorities to drop charges and immediately and unconditionally release four journalists working for Iwacu, one of the country's last remaining independent newspapers, and all others arrested for exercising their fundamental rights.
Christine Kamikazi, Agnès Ndirubusa, Egide Harerimana, and Térence Mpozenzi, and their driver, Adolphe Masabarakiza, were arrested on October 22, 2019 while on a reporting trip to Bubanza Province, and later charged with being complicit in "threatening the security of the state." Their judgment is due by the end of January.
The 15-year sentence requested by the prosecutor in this case is a warning to the few remaining journalists who dare to stay in Burundi: report on sensitive issues at your peril.
The European Union reacted to widespread human rights abuses triggered by President Pierre Nkurunziza's controversial decision in 2015 to run for a third term by suspending direct budgetary support to the government, and imposing targeted sanctions against four individuals alleged to be involved in the subsequent crackdown on dissent. But these measures have had little impact.
One of those sanctioned, Col. Gervais Ndirakobuca, was recently appointed as director of the country's national intelligence service.
Tensions continue to rise as Burundi's polls approach. Local authorities and the ruling party's notorious youth league members have beaten, threatened, and restricted people's access to basic services to force them to "donate" money to fund the elections, and committed rampant abuses against the opposition.
These arrests, which followed several politically motivated prosecutions of human rights defenders, have already triggered an international outcry. In December 2019, 39 MEPs wrote to the Burundian government calling for the journalists' release.
Today's resolution goes one step further. Burundian authorities should immediately restore conditions for free and fair elections, which includes ensuring the media can work without fear of ending up in jail. And the first necessary step should be the unconditional release of the Iwacu journalists who appear to have been prosecuted simply for doing their jobs.