Burundi

Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:

There were numerous reports the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings, often against perceived supporters of the political opposition or those who exercised their lawful rights. The banned NGO Ligue Iteka, which continued operating from outside the country, documented 309 killings by the end of September, many allegedly committed by agents of the security services or members of the Imbonerakure. The assessments of Ligue Iteka and other human rights groups differed on the number of killings for which agents of the state or ruling party were likely responsible. Responsibility for arbitrary killings and exact statistics were difficult to determine due to the government’s restrictions on human rights monitors and civil society organizations (CSOs) and refusal of access to international bodies. Investigations and prosecutions of government officials and members of the ruling party who allegedly committed arbitrary or unlawful killings were rare.

The 2018 report of the UN Commission of Inquiry (UN COI), whose members were denied access to the country by the government but who conducted interviews with more than 400 witnesses living in exile, restated its conclusions from the previous year and found “reason to believe that arbitrary killings remain a widespread practice in Burundi” and that members of the National Intelligence Service (SNR), police, and Imbonerakure were mostly responsible for these killings. The UN COI reported that the practice of hiding bodies, including by weighing them down with stones and throwing them into rivers or by transporting them from one province or district to another to make it difficult to identify victims, persisted. As previously reported the UN COI noted that when bodies are found, they are often buried without an investigation. The commission stated that killings were increasingly taking place in a clandestine fashion rendering documentation more difficult. The report stated that the UN COI received no reports of killings on a scale commensurate with those in 2015 and 2016, with the exception of a May 11 armed group attack in Cibitoke province of a more severe nature. The report also stated that the UN COI had reasonable grounds to believe that crimes including killings, imprisonment, torture, sexual violence, and political persecution amounted to crimes against humanity. NGOs also reported numerous cases of extrajudicial killings committed by police, SNR, and military personnel, sometimes with involvement of local government officials. Local and international organizations also charged that members of the Imbonerakure were responsible for some unlawful killings, including summary executions.

Human rights organizations documented violence, including alleged killings, in advance of the May referendum. Human Rights Watch (HRW) documented the death of Simon Bizimana on March 14 following his arrest and alleged torture during a month-long detention in prison for refusing to register as a voter, which by law is not a crime. During a video, in which Bizimana was questioned by a government official prior to his arrest, he stated he would not participate in elections due to reasons of religious conscience. A hospital certificate stated that the cause of death was malaria, but witness accounts alleged his condition worsened following beatings with iron rods inflicted by police. HRW also documented the killing on February 24 of Dismas Sinzinkayo, a member of the nonrecognized Forces Nationales de Liberation party led by Agathon Rwasa (FNL-Rwasa), by members of the Imbonerakure following his refusal to show proof of voter registration. On May 13, during the two-week official campaign period before the referendum, a violent confrontation between members of Imbonerakure and FNL-Rwasa supporters in Kirundo province resulted in the death of two FNL-Rwasa members.

Burundian armed opposition groups, primarily operating from the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), conducted periodic cross-border forays into Burundi that resulted in killings. On May 11, an armed group crossed the border from the DRC and attacked the town of Ruhagarika in Cibitoke province, killing 26, including women and children. The government stated that some victims were burned alive. Following the incident, the government established a domestic investigative commission, but as of November it had not publicly released its findings. On September 26, police announced the arrest of an alleged leader of the May 11 attack. The individual, Dismas Ndayisaba, stated that he was a member of the armed group RED-Tabara and that the attack was ordered by Alexis Sinduhije, an opposition figure in exile associated with RED-Tabara. Spokespersons for Sinduhije denied the accusation.

As of mid-October there were at least 48 grenade attacks throughout the country, resulting in at least 17 fatalities. It was often difficult to identify perpetrators and motives behind the attacks. While some attacks specifically targeted police and other members of the security services with apparent political motives, others were likely motivated by personal or business vendettas. Responsibility for attacks was often unclear.

There were numerous reports that individuals were victims of politically motivated disappearances after they were detained by elements of the security forces or in kidnappings where the identities of the perpetrators were not evident.

In September the UN COI reported that the phenomena of arbitrary arrest and detention, including in secret locations, the concealment of bodies, and the impunity prevailing in the country continued to create a climate of secrecy conducive to enforced disappearance. The report also noted the persistence of allegations that individuals were arrested by members of the security services and killed “without, in certain cases, their bodies being found.” Members of the Imbonerakure, SNR, and police continued to be responsible for most of the disappearances. The 2018 UN COI report stated that commission members had received information regarding cases of alleged forced disappearances for which insufficient details were available to document the cases.

The September report found reason to believe that Bonaventure Havyarimana, Egide Habonimana, Lionel Hafashimana, Emmanuel Nyabenda, and Benius Mbanyenimanga were subjected to forced disappearance following their detention by members of the SNR on March 2. All five were members of the suspended opposition party Movement for Solidarity and Democracy (MSD). The report stated that SNR agents demanded ransoms from the victims’ relatives for their release and that they were allegedly killed despite payment of ransom.

Jean Bigirimana, a journalist for independent newspaper Iwacu, was abducted from his car in 2016. Bigirimana’s spouse was present at the abduction and stated publicly that SNR officers were responsible. As of October his whereabouts remained unknown. According to media reports, his spouse received several anonymous death threats in 2017 and subsequently fled the country with her children; the family continued to receive threats during the year.

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

The constitution and penal code prohibit cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, but there were numerous reports government officials employed these practices. NGOs reported cases of torture committed by security services or members of the Imbonerakure. As of September Ligue Iteka reported 200 such cases, the majority allegedly committed by members of the Imbonerakure. According to HRW some Burundian refugees in other countries testified they had fled the country after they or their family members suffered rape and other sexual violence, torture, and illegal detention by members of the security forces.

In its 2018 report, the UN COI reported that torture and ill-treatment persisted and the methods employed remained consistent, while observing an “evolution in the profile of victims and perpetrators, as well as the goals pursued.” The report stated that since 2017 members of the Imbonerakure were the most frequent perpetrators of acts of torture but reported continued allegations of acts of torture by police officers, agents of the SNR, and Burundian National Defense Forces (BNDF) to a lesser extent. The report described acts of torture as primarily punitive, and aimed particularly at perceived political opponents. According to the UN COI, victims were beaten or kicked or were struck with stones, sticks, rods, metal bars or rifle butts, or were attacked with sharp objects such as machetes or knives. Some victims were burned with heated metal rods, including some who were tied up or handcuffed. In a number of cases, these acts were accompanied by death threats, intimidation, and verbal abuse.

Most such acts of torture and ill-treatment occurred in places of detention, including police or SNR holding cells, the Mpimba central prison in Bujumbura, and unofficial places of detention such as private homes. Several victims described conditions of detention in prisons and police cells that constituted cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. For example, representatives of the nonrecognized FNL-Rwasa party and the Amizero Y’Abarundi coalition of political independents with which it was associated stated that security service members tortured detained members of the party, including individuals who participated in campaign activities prior to the May constitutional referendum.

Sexual violence remained pervasive and was often used as a means of torture to obtain information or confessions from detainees, although the COI and other observers assessed a trend toward sexual violence by government agents or members of the Imbonerakure being committed in private residences rather than in detention sites. A May report by HRW documented testimonies from Burundian refugees in Uganda and Tanzania that included accounts of acts of sexual violence committed by members of the Imbonerakure against political opponents in 2017 and during the year. Rape was also committed while police officers or members of the Imbonerakure arrested a victim’s spouse or relative accused of belonging to an opposition party.

The country has contributed peacekeepers to the African Union Mission in Somalia since 2008 and to the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) since 2014. As of October there were almost 800 Burundian personnel serving in MINUSCA. The United Nations received three allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) against three members of the Burundian military contingent serving with MINUSCA as of September, including one allegation of the rape of a minor. The allegations were pending investigation as of September. Burundian authorities were also investigating other SEA allegations against MINUSCA peacekeepers from Burundi referred to them by the United Nations in 2016 and 2015, in compliance with requirements of the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Prisons were overcrowded, and conditions remained harsh and sometimes life threatening. Conditions in detention centers managed by the SNR and in local “lock-ups” managed by police generally were worse than in prisons, and there were allegations that police and members of the SNR committed acts of torture, beating, and mistreatment of detainees. Prisons did not meet the standards established by the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (Mandela Rules).

Physical Conditions: The Office of Penitentiary Affairs reported that, as of September, there were 10,373 inmates, including 4,745 pretrial detainees, in 11 prisons, the majority of which were built before 1965, with the capacity to accommodate 4,194 inmates. Of the 10,373 inmates, 560 were women and 125 were juveniles. As of October authorities held 117 juveniles (most but not all of whom had been convicted; others were awaiting trial) in two juvenile rehabilitation facilities that opened in 2015; they were allowed to participate in recreational activities and received psychosocial support and preparation for eventual return to their families and communities. In addition, there were 82 children living with their incarcerated mothers. The most crowded prisons were Muramvya (30 miles from Bujumbura), where the inmate population was at 721 percent of capacity and Mpimba (in Bujumbura) which was at 513 percent of capacity. No information was available on the number of persons held in detention centers managed by the SNR or in communal jails operated by police. There was a prison for women in Kayanza. Authorities commonly held pretrial detainees with convicted prisoners. No data were available on the number of deaths in detention, reports of abuse by guards, or prisoner-on-prisoner violence. There were reports of physical abuse by government officials, lack of adequate medical treatment, and prolonged solitary confinement.

Prisons did not have adequate sanitation systems (toilets, bathing facilities), drinking water, ventilation, or lighting. Prisons and detention centers did not have facilities for persons with disabilities.

According to government officials and international human rights observers, many prisoners suffered from intestinal illnesses and malaria (which were also pervasive in the country’s general population). An unknown number died from disease. Each inmate received approximately 12 ounces of manioc and 12 ounces of beans daily; rations also included oil and salt on some days. Authorities expected family and friends to provide funds for all other expenses. Each prison was required to employ at least one qualified nurse and received at least one weekly visit by a doctor, but positions were sometimes vacant and prisoners did not always receive prompt access to medical care; inmates with serious medical conditions were sent to local hospitals.

Administration: Prison authorities allowed prisoners to submit complaints to judicial authorities without censorship, but they rarely investigated prisoners’ complaints. There were credible reports of mistreatment of prisoners, but no record that abusers were punished. Visitors were authorized to see prisoners in most cases.

Independent Monitoring: The 2018 UN COI report documented the continued existence of numerous secret, unofficial detention facilities, including one located in the headquarters of the SNR. No independent monitors were allowed to visit these secret facilities. The September 2016 UN Independent Investigation on Burundi (UNIIB) report concluded there were “reasonable grounds to believe” security forces and Imbonerakure had established 13 places of detention that were denied or unacknowledged by the prosecutor general, according to victims UNIIB had interviewed. In its response to the UNIIB report, the government challenged UNIIB’s “reasonable grounds to believe” there were unacknowledged detention centers by asserting there was no tangible evidence to support the allegations.

The government permitted visits requested by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the African Union, and the Independent National Commission on Human Rights (CNIDH). Monitors visited known official prisons, communal jails, and SNR detention centers regularly. Monitoring groups had complete and unhindered access to those prisoners held in known detention facilities. Since the government’s 2016 decision to suspend official cooperation with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) local office, the OHCHR was not allowed to conduct prison visits.

The constitution and law prohibit arbitrary arrest and detention, but the government did not observe these prohibitions. The law provides for a fine of 10,000 Burundian francs ($5.65) and imprisonment of 15 days to one year for any member of the security forces found guilty of involvement in arbitrary arrest. Human rights groups reported numerous arbitrary arrests and detentions, including some involving the participation of Imbonerakure members. The UN COI described an ongoing trend of arbitrary arrests and detentions during the period of its mandate, starting in 2015, but it did not provide statistics. As of September Ligue Iteka documented 1,182 cases it deemed to be arbitrary arrests but was not able to document the subsequent disposition of all cases. Although regulations obligated government officials to notify family members of an arrest and allow communication, there were documented cases wherein families of arrested individuals did not receive timely notification or were not allowed contact with detainees.

Among other reasons for arbitrary arrests or detentions, police arrested persons on accusations of “undermining state security, participation in armed banditry, holding illegal meetings, illegal detention of weapons, or simply because they were traveling to or from other provinces or neighboring countries,” according to the OHCHR.

In 2017 there were reportedly 15 cases of children detained for “participation in armed groups, participation in an insurrectional movement, or illegal possession of arms,” all receiving legal assistance through CSOs. Some of those detained were subsequently convicted and sentenced. Those convicted were placed in government-run rehabilitation centers in Ruyigi and Rumonge provinces for children in conflict with the law and received psychosocial support, recreational activities, and preparation for eventual return to their families and communities. As of October, 14 of the 15 children arrested in 2017 were released; one was serving a sentence at the center in Rumonge. There were no further reports of children arrested under these provisions as of October.

NGOs reported numerous cases of individuals arrested without due process and accused of being part of or intending to join the armed opposition. Members of the nonrecognized FNL associated with National Assembly First Vice President Agathon Rwasa (FNL-Rwasa), and his Amizero Y’Abarundi coalition of political independents, stated that security service members arrested party members in retaliation for their political activism and membership in the party, including for political activities during the official campaign period before the May constitutional referendum. Authorities charged some of those identified with the FNL with threats to state security, participation in rebellion, or illegal possession of firearms.

In July 2017 Germain Rukuki, a former employee of the banned NGO Christian Action for the Abolition of Torture-Burundi, was arrested by SNR officials and subsequently transferred to Ngozi Prison. Rukuki was accused of acts against state security and rebellion; international and local human rights organizations criticized the nature of his detention and the charges against him as politically motivated. On April 26, Rukuki was convicted and sentenced to 32 years’ imprisonment, which he appealed. As of November his appeal was in progress. In June Rukuki broke his leg during a volleyball game in prison; he requested and was allowed access to medical treatment at a hospital in Ngozi. During his recovery following his operation, he was returned to prison; Rukuki and his lawyers argued that he needed more time for recovery in hospital. His lawyers applied for a provisional release on humanitarian grounds, but it was not granted.

In November 2017 Nestor Nibitanga, a human rights monitor and former representative of the banned NGO Burundian Association for the Protection of Human Rights and Detainees was arrested in Gitega and accused of acts against state security. On January 3–he was denied bail and on August 13–Nibitanga was convicted of the charges against him and sentenced to five years in prison; his lawyer stated that Nibitanga would appeal.

In June 2017 Emmanuel Nshimirimana, Aime Constant Gatore, and Marius Nizigiyimana, all employees of the NGO Speech and Action for the Raising of Consciousness and the Evolution of Mentalities (PARCEM) in Muramvya province were arrested and similarly charged with acts against state security. In March they were convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison. Their lawyers appealed the conviction; a hearing scheduled in July was postponed and had not been held by year’s end.

Numerous reports from human rights activists continued to detail instances in which persons arrested allegedly had to pay bribes to be released. The amount demanded typically ranged from 5,280 to 52,800 Burundian francs ($3 to $30). A September 2017 Amnesty International report recounted instances wherein persons arrested by security forces or detained by members of the Imbonerakure were subjected to extortion and asked to pay between 200,000 and two million Burundian francs ($115 to $1,150). The 2017 UN COI report stated that members of the SNR, police, judiciary, and Imbonerakure often demanded large sums of money for the release of detainees or for their transfer to official prisons.

ROLE OF THE POLICE AND SECURITY APPARATUS

The National Police, which is under the Ministry of Public Security’s authority, is responsible for law enforcement and maintenance of order. The armed forces, which are under the Ministry of Defense’s authority, are responsible for external security but also have some domestic security responsibilities. The SNR, which reports directly to the president, has arrest and detention authority. Members of the Imbonerakure, who have no official arrest authority, were involved in or responsible for numerous detentions and abductions, according to reporting by multiple human rights organizations, and the Imbonerakure regularly took over the role of state security agents. In such cases Imbonerakure members often turned over arrested individuals to members of the official security services, but in some cases harassed or committed acts of violence against detained individuals without subsequently turning them over. The September report of the UN COI stated that the SNR and police continued to be the principal perpetrators of human rights violations but highlighted the increasing role played by members of the Imbonerakure. The UN COI found that impunity for these crimes was widespread and perpetuated by the lack of an independent judiciary.

The 2005 constitution provides for equal numbers of Hutu and Tutsi in the military, police, and the SNR to prevent either of these ethnic groups from having disproportionate power that might be used against the other. The SNR, however, did not achieve equilibrium between Hutu and Tutsi members, as a large majority remained Hutu; a slight majority of the police were Hutu. The May constitutional referendum removed the SNR from the security services subject to ethnic quotas but maintained the quotas for other institutions; it also maintained a clause providing for a review of the quotas by the Senate at a future date. The composition of the BNDF remained close to the quota requirement.

Police were often poorly trained, underequipped, underpaid, and unprofessional. Local citizens widely perceived them as corrupt, often demanding bribes and engaging in criminal activity. The Anticorruption Brigade, which reports to the minister in Charge of Good Governance in the Office of the President, is responsible for investigating police corruption but was widely perceived to be ineffective.

A significant proportion of police were former rebels. Approximately 85 percent of police received minimal entry-level training but had no refresher training in the past five years, while 15 percent received no training. Wages were low and petty corruption widespread.

Police were heavily politicized and responsive to the CNDD-FDD. Police officials complained that members of the Imbonerakure had infiltrated their ranks. CSOs claimed the weaponry carried by some supposed police officers was not in the official arsenal. Some police officers prevented citizens from exercising their civil rights and were implicated in or responsible for summary executions, arbitrary arrests and detentions, enforced disappearances, acts of torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment and sexual violence. The September UN COI report stated that the Antiriot Brigade and the Protection of Institutions unit continued to be significant perpetrators of grave violations of human rights since 2015. The government rarely investigated and prosecuted these cases, which resulted in widespread police impunity and politicization.

In its response to the 2017 UN COI report, the government admitted that, “certain elements of the security forces have overstepped the framework of their competencies.” The government stated they had been held accountable by the justice system but provided no supporting documentation.

Mixed security committees, whose members came from local government, regular security services, and the citizenry, operated in towns and villages throughout the country. Local government authorities designed the committees to play an advisory role for local policymakers and to flag threats and incidents of criminality for local administration. Members of the Imbonerakure frequently occupied positions on the mixed security committees that were reserved for local citizenry, giving them a strong role in local policing, which permitted the ruling party to harass and intimidate opposition members and those perceived to favor the opposition on the local level. Government officials and a spokesperson for the CNDD-FDD confirmed that Imbonerakure members participated in mixed security committees. The mixed security committees remained controversial because lines of authority increasingly blurred between Imbonerakure members and police. Imbonerakure members reportedly detained individuals for political or personal reasons, despite having no legal powers of arrest; beat, extorted, tortured, and killed persons with impunity; and often handed individuals over to the SNR or police, indicating evidence that authorities knew of and failed to punish their conduct. According to reports by multiple human rights groups, Imbonerakure members set up roadblocks in many provinces, sometimes detaining and beating passersby and extorting money or stealing their possessions.

Independent observers generally regarded the BNDF as professional and politically neutral. The 2017 UN COI report, however, reported that military personnel were implicated in summary executions, arbitrary arrests, and torture; although the most recent COI report clarified the responsibility of BNDF members for torture in particular as “of a lesser measure.” Among the units involved in grave violations of human rights, the commission identified the Special Brigade for the Protection of Institutions, the Combat Engineer Battalion (Camp Muzinda), and the Support Battalion of the First Military Region (Camp Muha) in Bujumbura. The commission and other organizations reported that major decisions, including those that have given rise to gross violations of human rights, were allegedly made through parallel chains of command reporting to senior government and ruling party leadership.

The SNR’s mandate is to provide both external and internal security. It often investigated certain opposition political party leaders and their supporters. Many citizens perceived the SNR as heavily politicized and responsive to the CNDD-FDD. The UN COI and NGOs asserted SNR officials committed acts of torture, extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearance, and arbitrary arrest and detention.

ARREST PROCEDURES AND TREATMENT OF DETAINEES

Arrests require warrants issued by a presiding magistrate, although police may arrest a person without a warrant by notifying a police supervisor in advance. Police have seven days to finish their investigation and transfer suspects to appear before a magistrate but may request a seven-day extension if they require additional investigation time. Police rarely respected these provisions and routinely violated the requirement that detainees be charged and appear before a magistrate within seven days of arrest.

A magistrate must either order the release of suspects or confirm the charges and continue detention, initially for 14 days, and for an additional seven days if necessary to prepare the case for trial. Magistrates routinely failed to convene preliminary hearings, often citing their heavy case backlog or improper documentation by police. The CNIDH identified some cases of prisoners held in detention without a preliminary hearing or in excess of the statutory limits for preventive detention in previous years but did not report publicly on the issue during the year. Officials acknowledged that the legal system struggled to process cases in a timely fashion and that lengthy pretrial detentions were common. A UN human rights team that visited SNR facilities in Bujumbura in 2016 reported that 25 of the 67 detainees they saw had been kept in custody beyond the prescribed maximum time. Due to suspension of the OHCHR’s memorandum of understanding in October 2016, it has been unable to verify conditions since then. There were reportedly instances in which police did not comply with magistrates’ orders to release suspects in detention, even when there was insufficient evidence to merit charges.

Lack of transportation for suspects, police, and magistrates was a frequently cited reason for the failure to convene preliminary hearings. This was a particular problem in the six provinces without prisons, where lack of transport prevented the transfer of suspects from the site of detention to the provincial court with jurisdiction over the case.

Judges have authority to release suspects on bail but rarely used it. They may also release suspects on their own recognizance and often did so. Suspects may hire lawyers at their own expense in criminal cases, but the law does not require legal representation, and the government did not provide attorneys for those unable to afford one. Prisons have solitary confinement facilities, and detainees were sometimes held in solitary confinement for long periods. Authorities on occasion denied family members prompt access to detainees, particularly those detainees accused of opposing the government.

The law provides for prisoners to have access to medical care and legal assistance. The SNR denied to lawyers access to detainees held at its headquarters in Bujumbura. The ICRC continued to have access to official prisons and detention centers. Several credible organizations, however, reported that the SNR, police, senior officials of the government, and other security organizations maintained clandestine holding cells to which no independent monitors, including the ICRC, were granted access. The September report of the UN COI documented continued cases of torture and mistreatment that occurred in secret, unofficial detention centers where national and international observers had no access.

Arbitrary Arrest: The law provides for a fine of 10,000 Burundian francs ($6) and imprisonment of 15 days to one year for security force members found guilty of arbitrary arrest. There was no evidence that this law had ever been applied. NGOs reported numerous instances of alleged arbitrary arrests wherein no underlying offense in law existed; Ligue Iteka alleged 1,182 such cases as of September. Comprehensive data were not available on the subsequent handling of the cases. Authorities released many within a day or two of their detention.

Pretrial Detention: Prolonged pretrial detention remained a serious problem. The law specifies authorities may not hold a person longer than 14 days without charge. As of September, according to the director of prison administration, 47 percent of inmates in prisons and detention centers were pretrial detainees. The average time in pretrial detention was approximately one year, according to the Office of Penitentiary Affairs, and authorities held some without charge. Some persons reportedly remained in pretrial detention for nearly five years. In some cases the length of detention equaled or exceeded the sentence for the alleged crime. Inefficiency and corruption among police, prosecutors, and judicial officials contributed to the problem. For example, authorities deprived many persons of their legal right to be released on their own recognizance, because public prosecutors failed to open case files or files were lost. Others remained incarcerated without proper arrest warrants, either because police failed to complete the initial investigation and transfer the case to the appropriate magistrate or because the magistrate failed to convene the required hearing to rule on the charges.

Detainee’s Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: Persons arrested or detained, regardless of whether on criminal or other grounds, are entitled to challenge in court the legal basis or arbitrary nature of their detention and obtain prompt release if found to have been unlawfully detained. There was no record that any person was able to challenge their arrest on these grounds during the year.

Amnesty: On January 31, a presidential decree announced an amnesty of prisoners who were serving sentences of less than five years and halving the sentences of others. The government announced the amnesty would affect approximately 2,000 prisoners; as of October, the government stated that 2,611 had been released under the decree. Some of those released, including members of opposition political parties, were reported to have been subsequently rearrested. The decree specifically excluded those imprisoned for the crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, armed robbery, illegal possession of firearms, threatening the internal or external security of the state, voluntary homicide, being a mercenary, cannibalism, and all other crimes committed in association with organized gangs. In September civil society organizations raised concerns with Ombudsman Edouard Nduwimana that a number of persons who received presidential pardons or who finished their sentences remained in prison. Human rights activists claimed that there were delays in the release of some prisoners eligible under the decree, and members of the banned MSD party stated that more than 100 members of their party who met the degree criteria had not been released as of October.

Although the constitution and law provide for an independent judiciary, there were instances when authorities subjected members of the judiciary to political influence or bribery to drop investigations and prosecutions, predetermine the outcome of trials, or avoid enforcing court orders. According to the UN COI, the rules of criminal procedure were rarely observed. Warrantless arrests of political opponents were routinely carried out, pretrial detentions were illegally extended, and judges used confessions obtained under torture as a basis for convicting defendants.

The September report of the UN COI stated there was a long-standing lack of judicial independence. The executive branch frequently interfered with politically sensitive cases to protect members of the CNDD-FDD and the Imbonerakure by issuing orders to have them acquitted or released, or to have opponents of the government convicted and imprisoned. Prosecutors and members of the security services sometimes ignored court orders for the release of detainees after judges had determined that there were no legal grounds for holding them.

There were allegations the public prosecutor willfully ignored calls to investigate senior figures within the security services and national police. Serious irregularities undermined the fairness and credibility of trials, and the failure to prosecute members of the security forces accused of abuse created an atmosphere of impunity.

TRIAL PROCEDURES

By law defendants are presumed innocent. Panels of judges conduct all trials publicly. Defendants have the right to prompt and detailed information on the charges and free interpretation from the moment charged through all appeals, if necessary, although these rights were not always respected. Defendants have the right to a fair trial without undue delay and to adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense, although this did not always occur. Defendants have a right to counsel but not at the government’s expense, even in cases involving serious criminal charges. Few defendants had legal representation because few could afford the services of a lawyer. Some local and international NGOs provided legal assistance to some defendants. Defendants have a right to defend themselves, including questioning prosecution or plaintiff witnesses, calling their own witnesses, and examining evidence against them. Defendants also may present evidence on their own behalf and did so in the majority of cases. Defendants have the right not to be compelled to testify or confess guilt. The law extends the above rights to all citizens.

The right to a fair trial was often violated. The September UN COI report stated judges often accepted and based decisions on evidence collected through acts of torture. In January 2017, 20 individuals accused of participating in an armed group attack on the Mukoni military camp in Muyinga province were tried, convicted, and received prison sentences in an expedited procedure in the Superior Court of Muyinga. They were reportedly tried without access to counsel, and the court reportedly did not take into account signs that some had been subjected to torture. According to HRW those standing trial had badly swollen hands and feet, many were limping, one had his arm in a sling, and another vomited blood during the trial. The judge denied a defendant’s request that the trial be postponed because he had been tortured, and wanted to be treated before presenting his defense. The defendants were convicted and sentenced to 30 years’ imprisonment and each fined five million Burundian francs ($2,900), approximately 10 times the average annual income in the country, with an increase of the sentences to 55 years in prison if they failed to pay the fine.

All defendants, except those in military courts, have the right to appeal their cases to the Supreme Court. The inefficiency of the court system extended the appeals process for long periods, in many cases for more than a year.

Procedures for civilian and military courts are similar, but military courts typically reached decisions more quickly. The government does not provide military defendants with attorneys to assist in their defense, although NGOs provided some defendants with attorneys in cases involving serious charges. Military trials generally are open to the public but may be closed for reasons such as national security or when publicity might harm the victim or a third party; for example, cases involving rape or child abuse. Defendants in military courts are entitled to only one appeal.

While many of the above rights were often violated, no rights were systematically denied to persons from specific groups.

POLITICAL PRISONERS AND DETAINEES

No verifiable statistic was available on the number of political prisoners or detainees; an estimate was unavailable due to the government’s suspension of the OHCHR’s activities and refusal to cooperate with or allow the UN COI access to the country. In 2016 the OHCHR estimated there were more than 500 political prisoners or detainees, but independent observers estimated that the number of political prisoners remained in the hundreds. The government denied it held persons for political reasons, citing instead acts against state security, participation in a rebellion, or inciting insurrection. Human rights groups stated that these charges were often a pretext for repressing members of political opposition parties and human rights defenders. Before, during, and after the campaign for the May constitutional referendum, members of opposition parties, particularly FNL-Rwasa, reported numerous instances of their members being detained for political activity. Some of those detained were subsequently released, some charged, and some remained in lengthy pretrial detention. In September 60 prisoners went on a hunger strike in response to a statement by the minister of justice claiming that there were no political prisoners in the country.

The UN COI reported that political opponents were often treated unfairly, they were arrested without warrants, and their rights were routinely violated during both the pretrial and trial stages, particularly through restrictions on access to counsel or obstruction of the work of counsel.

The director of prison affairs said he could not identify political prisoners, as they were incarcerated on charges just like ordinary criminals. In some cases, however, political prisoners were confined in separate cells.

CIVIL JUDICIAL PROCEDURES AND REMEDIES

Individuals and organizations may seek civil remedies for human rights violations and may appeal decisions to an international or regional court. In 2016, five civil society organizations that the government closed in October 2016 contested the decision in the East African Court of Justice. As of November the case remained in process. In January the court denied an application by the complainants for a preliminary injunction overruling their closure pending the outcome of the case. In denying the application, the court concluded that the complainants had not demonstrated that their closure caused irreparable damage.

PROPERTY RESTITUTION

In the wake of violence and repression, fear, hunger, insecurity, abuse, and severe economic hardship following the 2015 political crisis and harvest failures in early 2017, more than 400,000 Burundians fled to neighboring states, primarily Tanzania. As of November more than 54,000 had returned primarily from Tanzania through a formal process organized by the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. There were reports that in some instances government officials and private citizens seized land owned or legally occupied by departing refugees since 2015, which complicated the reintegration of some of those who returned during the year. Some returnees also found that their houses were destroyed, either due to natural conditions or to intentional property destruction. In general, however, government officials prevented the occupation of lands belonging to refugees. Government officials cited specific instructions from President Nkurunziza in a 2015 speech to provide for the integrity of refugees’ property.

The National Commission for the Land and Other Properties (CNTB) was established in 2006 to resolve land ownership conflicts, particularly between returning refugees who had fled successive waves of conflict in the country and those who had remained. Land disputes were frequently a source of conflict given small plot sizes and the reliance of the vast majority of citizens on subsistence agriculture, and many government officials and civil society actors considered land conflict to be the top cause of killings in the country. In 2015 the president suspended the implementation of all decisions to expropriate taken by the CNTB due to violence associated with land disputes in Makamba province. The CNTB’s reported practice of generally restoring lands to returning refugees from Burundi’s past conflicts, many of whom were ethnic Hutu, led to accusations of ethnic favoritism. In January 2017 the president lifted the suspension, and the CNTB continued its work to resolve land ownership conflicts.

The constitution and law provide for the right to privacy and require search warrants, but authorities did not always respect these rights. The legislature passed into law a revised Criminal Procedures Code, which was officially promulgated in May. The revised law provided for warrantless searches when security services suspect acts of terrorism, fraud, trafficking in persons, illegal possession of weapons, trafficking in or consumption of drugs, or “infractions of a sexual nature.” The law requires that security services provide advance notice to prosecutorial officials but does not require approval. Human rights groups raised concerns that the breadth of exceptions to the warrant requirement and the lack of protections provided for in the law created risks of abuse. They also noted that by law warrants may be issued by a prosecutorial official without reference to a judicial authority, limiting judicial oversight of the decisions of police and prosecutors.

Police, SNR agents, and Imbonerakure members–sometimes acting as mixed security committees–set up roadblocks and searched vehicles for weapons. They conducted search-and-seizure operations throughout the year, with a particularly high number of reported searches in the weeks leading up to the May referendum. During these searches security agents seized weapons and household items they claimed could be used to supply an insurgency, including large cooking pots and mosquito nets. Members of the security forces also sought bribes in many instances, either during searches or in lieu of a search.

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The Lessons of 1989: Freedom and Our Future