Nairobi — End Abusive Prosecutions; Lift Restrictions on Free Speech
Burundi's scrutiny and control of media and nongovernmental organizations, and the conviction after deeply flawed proceedings of 12 journalists and activists in exile have a continued chilling effect on their work, Human Rights Watch said today.
Almost one year after President Évariste Ndayishimiye's inauguration, the authorities have sent contradictory signals. They have lifted some restrictions imposed on civil society and media since the country's 2015 political crisis. But they have also doubled down on human rights defenders and journalists who are perceived to be critical of the government. A human rights activist and a former member of parliament convicted of abusive charges remain in detention.
"The government should go beyond symbolic gestures of good faith to address the entrenched system of repression under the late President Pierre Nkurunziza," said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "Substantive reforms are needed to address the lack of judicial independence, politicized prosecutions, and the absence of accountability for abuses committed since 2015."
In April 2021 Human Rights Watch interviewed 36 Burundian journalists, civil society activists, foreign nongovernmental organization workers, United Nations staff, and diplomats - living both inside and outside the country - about the impact of Ndayishimiye's limited reforms. All spoke on condition of anonymity. Human Rights Watch also reviewed laws, trial documents, public speeches, and social media posts.
During Nkurunziza's third and final term, independent civil society and media were relentlessly attacked, and their members killed, disappeared, jailed, and threatened. Scores of human rights defenders and journalists fled the country. Many remain in exile today. There has been almost total impunity for these crimes, and reforms introduced by Ndayishmiye have had only a limited impact on the ability of journalists and civil society to express themselves freely.
Ndayishimiye's reform agenda appears designed to improve Burundi's image and restore economic ties with the international community. However, since his inauguration in June 2020, grave human rights violations, including extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, and arbitrary arrests have continued, although to a lesser extent than during the 2020 elections. Documenting human rights violations remains difficult due to restricted access to the country for international human rights organizations, security risks for Burundian activists, and victims' and witnesses' fear of retaliation by the authorities. Alleged abusers have been arrested and prosecuted in only a few cases, although their trials often lacked transparency.
Abuses in the justice system were illustrated in the early May conviction of a former member of parliament, Fabien Banciryanino, on security charges. He was sentenced to one year in prison and a fine of 100,000 Burundian Francs (US$51). During the trial, two sources present said the prosecution accused Banciryanino of threatening the security of the state for allegedly holding a news conference without prior authorization, and of rebellion for allegedly refusing to hand over his land title when requested by a local administrator. Banciryanino pleaded not guilty.
On March 5 a presidential decree announced the pardon or early release of more than 5,000 prisoners. Around half have been released, in what could be a significant step toward relieving severe prison overcrowding. The decree excluded many prisoners in pre-trial detention or accused of security-related offenses, many of whom were arrested in the aftermath of the 2015 protests over the former president's bid for a third term and are held on political grounds.
During the release of a group of prisoners from Bujumbura's Mpimba prison, Ndayishimiye reiterated his commitment to end impunity and strengthen the judiciary, but falsely claimed that Burundi has no political prisoners. Nestor Nibitanga, a human rights defender arrested in November 2017 and convicted on security charges, after experiencing lengthy arbitrary detention and other severe violations of due process, was pardoned and released on April 27, but others remain in prison.
Although Ndayishmiye's government has lifted some restrictions, including the suspension of the anti-corruption organization PARCEM (Parole et Action pour le Réveil des Consciences et l'Évolution des Mentalités) and a local radio station, Bonesha FM, the authorities continue to exercise undue interference in and oversight over the work of civil society and the media, Human Rights Watch found.
The government continues to use two laws governing the work of domestic and foreign nongovernmental organizations and the 2018 media law to control activities. Journalists and staff members of domestic and international organizations reported having to seek permission from provincial and local authorities to carry out their work. They also described threats and difficulties preventing them from working on human rights or security-related issues. International media are still restricted and the operations of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and the Voice of America (VOA) in Burundi remain under a suspension order.
The February 2, 2021 publication of Burundi's Supreme Court's guilty verdict - dated June 23, 2020 - in the case against 34 people accused of participating in a May 2015 coup attempt, including the 12 human rights defenders and journalists in exile, has exposed the limits of the current government's reform agenda, Human Rights Watch said. After a trial during which the defendants were absent and did not have legal representation, flouting even the most basic due process principles, the group was found guilty of "attacks on the authority of the State," "assassinations," and "destruction."
On March 24, 2021, Radio Publique Africaine (RPA), Radio-Télévision Renaissance, and Radio Inzamba, three independent Burundian media outlets that have been operating out of Kigali, Rwanda, since their leaders and many of their journalists were forced into exile, suspended their broadcasts. The Rwandan authorities told the media outlets they could no longer operate out of Rwanda due to a request by the Burundian government. RPA and Radio Inzamba resumed operations in April after their directors left Rwanda. Radio-Télévision Renaissance announced they were resuming broadcasts on May 24.
On May 14 Human Rights Watch wrote to the Burundian foreign affairs and justice ministers and the National Independent Human Rights Commission sharing key findings and requesting information on steps taken to address abuses documented in this report. Human Rights Watch has not received any response.
The UN Commission of Inquiry on Burundi, established in September 2016 and supported by the European Union (EU), is the only remaining international investigative mechanism operating on Burundi, albeit without access to the country. Every year since its creation, the commission has documented grave human rights violations, which in some cases may amount to crimes against humanity. During its March 2021 update, the commission said that Burundi's partners should use concrete, objective factors to assess the Burundian government's progress in addressing the dire human rights situation.
On December 8, 2020, the EU and the Burundi government opened a political dialogue aimed at developing a "roadmap" for reforms, as the government presses the EU to lift its 2016 suspension of direct budgetary support. The government has yet to meet many of the benchmarks set by the EU in 2016, including those relating to media and civil society.
The ongoing dialogue between the EU and the Burundian government should set clear goals to restore space for freedom of assembly, association, and expression, Human Rights Watch said. The EU should not accept token gestures and promises of change at the expense of accountability and addressing the root causes of the country's human rights crisis.
Despite the lack of substantive progress, on April 27, the African Union Peace and Security Council ended its human rights observer mission and called for lifting all international sanctions against Burundi, and in December the UN Security Council ended its Burundi-specific briefings.
"Burundi's partners have a key role to play in ensuring that the government goes beyond piecemeal measures to tackle the systemic, structural failures of the judiciary," Mudge said. "The government's crackdown against those who have exposed widespread abuse is far from over."
In late April 2015 public demonstrations broke out in response to President Pierre Nkurunziza's decision to seek a controversial third electoral term. The Burundian police used excessive force and shot demonstrators indiscriminately. After a failed coup by a group of military officers in May, the Burundian government intensified its repression against suspected opponents and suspended most of the country's independent radio stations. Human rights activists came under attack, and the government began closing down human rights groups.
The interior ministry closed down Action by Christians for the Abolition of Torture (ACAT-Burundi) and the Association for the Protection of Human Rights and Detained Persons (APRODH) in October 2016, along with several other human rights groups accused of working to "tarnish the image of the country" and "sow hatred and division." In 2015, the APRODH's director survived an assassination attempt, and both his son and his son-in-law were shot dead.
Ligue Iteka, another leading human rights organization, was shut down by the interior ministry in January 2017. One of its members, Marie-Claudette Kwizera, was driven away in a vehicle thought to belong to the intelligence services in December 2015. The UN Commission of Inquiry on Burundi later received information indicating she was targeted because of her human rights work and murdered by national intelligence agents. Many independent civil society leaders, journalists, and opposition members accused of opposing the president's bid for a third term remain in exile.
Germain Rukuki, a member of ACAT-Burundi, was arrested in July 2017 and sentenced to 32 years in prison in April 2018 for "rebellion," "threatening state security," "participation in an insurrectional movement," and "attacks on the head of state." In June 2020 the Supreme Court annulled the Appeal Court's rejection of his appeal the previous year, citing procedural irregularities, and directed the Appeal Court to rehear the appeal. The hearing took place on March 24, but the court has not announced its verdict, even though it is required to do so within 30 days.
Nestor Nibitanga, who worked as an observer for APRODH, was sentenced to five years in prison for "threatening state security" in August 2018. He was pardoned and released on April 27, 2021, after serving out three and a half years of his sentence.
Under Ndayishimiye's presidency, the crackdown has persisted. Fabien Banciryanino, a former member of parliament, was arrested on October 2, 2020, after a local administrative official and a dozen policemen shut down a news conference at his home in Bujumbura and ordered him to report to a police detention center. He was initially charged with "rebellion," "threatening state security," and "slander," although the slander charge was later dropped. In early May, he was convicted and sentenced to one year in prison and fined 100,000 Burundian Francs ($51).
Banciryanino is widely regarded as a human rights defender; he is one of the few National Assembly members who were willing to speak out against human rights violations in a parliament heavily dominated by the ruling party. In February 2020 he voted against a law giving Nkurunziza the official status of "Supreme Guide of Patriotism," denounced the "numerous murders; bodies were thrown into the rivers while others were buried after mutilation," and called for Nkurunziza to be prosecuted.
In late March, Banciryanino wrote a letter to the director of Mpimba prison, where he is detained, copying Burundi's National Independent Human Rights Commission (Commission nationale indépendante des droits de l'homme, CNIDH), detailing abuses, including extortion by prison officials and other prisoners. These allegations confirm patterns documented by Human Rights Watch at Mpimba prison. He was subsequently placed in a small isolation cell for four days as punishment.
Senior government officials continue to issue warnings against activists and journalists in exile who are perceived to be working "against the interests of the country." The Supreme Court's guilty verdict against 12 human rights defenders and journalists in exile underscores the government's continued crackdown on dissent. They were sentenced to life in prison and to pay fines of more than 5.5 billion Burundian Francs ($2.8 million) in punitive damages to the Defense and Public Security ministries, the ruling National Council for the Defense of Democracy-Forces for the Defense of Democracy party (Conseil national pour la défense de la démocratie-Forces de défense de la démocratie, CNDD-FDD), and Rema FM, a pro-ruling party radio station. The Supreme Court had ordered the exiled defendants' property seized in May 2019.
The defendants were not present during the trial nor were they represented by lawyers. Three of them said that lawyers they contacted to represent them refused for fear of reprisals or prosecution, or were threatened by court officials to prevent them from representing the defendants in court. The group of 12 human rights defenders and journalists sent a letter to the national human rights commission on February 17 to seek its assistance in obtaining a copy of the verdict. They have not received it.
The prosecutions of human rights defenders indicate the government's intolerance of outspoken, critical voices and attempts to manipulate the justice system to try to discredit and obstruct important human rights work, Human Rights Watch said.
Piecemeal Media Reforms
Ndayishimiye's January 28, public commitment to a free and "responsible" press, led to a February 1 meeting, the first, between certain heads of media and the National Communication Council (CNC). Its members are appointed by the president, and it is responsible for overseeing the media and advising the government on communications. The day after the meeting, the Supreme Court verdict announcing the conviction of several leading journalists in exile was published.
On February 11, the CNC lifted the ban on public comments on the Iwacu website, which had been in place since April 2018, and pledged to restore access to the website in Burundi. Iwacu is Burundi's last remaining independent newspaper and is widely read. It is still inaccessible in Burundi, though.
On February 22, the CNC lifted the ban on Bonesha FM, a private radio station, which was required to sign an agreement similar to one the private radio station Isanganiro and Rema FM, a pro-ruling party station, signed when they resumed broadcasts in February 2016. The stations had been shut down after the coup attempt, along with Radio-Télévision Renaissance, and their premises and equipment were vandalized or destroyed. On April 21, the CNC authorized several new radio and television channels to begin operating.
However, for many journalists, these agreements, which state that the radio stations must provide "balanced" information and must not broadcast information that could threaten state security or "morality" have a muzzling effect, preventing them from documenting human rights abuses or security issues. These obligations are echoed in the 2018 press law, and comments made both publicly and privately by the president and other government officials. In addition, journalists working for the radio stations that were physically attacked and vandalized in May 2015 said they have struggled to operate due to lack of equipment.
Most journalists interviewed said that they felt Ndayishimiye's government was less hostile to the media than the previous administration, as long as they did not report on sensitive or critical topics.
Control and oversight of media reporting remain pervasive. One radio director in Burundi said: "We can broadcast information about bodies being found or people being tortured, but only with the authorities' permission. They call us sometimes to tell us when they want us to broadcast information. We can't do independent investigations ... We can't make any mistakes, otherwise [they] will accuse us of serving other interests."
Journalists also expressed concern about self-censorship and the prevailing climate of fear within the media, which was worsened by the unjust conviction of four journalists working for Iwacu in 2020, even though they were pardoned and released on December 24, 2020. Their pardon does not acquit them of the politically motivated conviction for complicity in an "impossible attempt" to undermine the internal security of the state, for which they received a two and a half-year prison sentence, and paid a one million Burundian Francs ($510) fine.
Journalists interviewed said the conviction and the unresolved disappearance of another Iwacu journalist, Jean Bigirimana, in July 2016 have had a lasting chilling effect on journalists who remain in Burundi. One senior journalist said: "With the imprisonment of the Iwacu journalists, the message was that journalists are not welcome anywhere that events unfold, especially when these are related to security." Another said: "Journalists are afraid of going out to report [on security topics]."
Journalists also said they inform local and provincial authorities in advance of their intention to report in their area. Otherwise, they fear the authorities will accuse them of working against the government. Some said the authorities had described journalists as "the enemy." Several also said that officials warned them not to interview exiled human rights defenders and journalists labelled by the government as "putschists."
Civil Society Under Close Watch
In January 2017, the government enacted two new laws allowing for increased control over the activities and resources of Burundian and foreign organizations. These laws restricted freedom of expression, association, and assembly and provided new and sweeping powers to the government to control international groups and repress critical voices.
On March 25, 2021, the minister for the interior, community development, and public security, Gervais Ndirakobuca, organized a meeting in Bugarama, Muramvya province, with representatives of local groups on the theme of "the role of NGOs in community development."
Two workers present at the meeting said the interior minister warned organizations against working to implement a so-called foreign agenda in Burundi. He instructed the groups to submit their planned activities to the ministry and said they would not be allowed to deviate from agreed-upon plans.
On April 2 PARCEM's June 2019 suspension was lifted by ministerial order. The anti-corruption organization had been accused of tarnishing the image of the country and its leaders after it began a campaign to raise awareness about social and health issues.
Although the workers for organizations interviewed said that lifting the suspension was a positive step, many felt that their working environment remained tightly controlled. Interviewees working across the country said the NGO law's requirement to inform local and provincial authorities of their activities had a deterrent effect on their work
Interviewees said they deliberately avoid being critical to maintain their ability to work: "Our strategy is to focus less on highlighting problems and more on providing solutions ... If something positive is done, we have to mention it," said the director of a Burundian human rights organization in Burundi.
When officials tell civil society and the media to "contribute" positively to the development or security of the country, they are drawing a clear line in the sand, Human Rights Watch said.
The government of Burundi should:
Immediately and unconditionally release all prisoners unjustly imprisoned, including Germain Rukuki and Fabien Banciryanino.
Open credible and transparent investigations and ensure justice for the disappearances of Marie-Claudette Kwizera and Jean Bigirimana.
Quash the conviction of 12 defenders and journalists in exile and initiate a dialogue with human rights and media organizations in exile.
Lift the suspension of human rights organizations and media operating from exile.
Publicly support civil society and the media's right to cover political, human rights, and security issues, and instruct local, provincial, and central authorities to end surveillance of their activities.
Amend laws governing the media and domestic and international organizations in line with regional and international obligations.