The Republic of Burundi is a constitutional, multiparty republic with an elected government. The 2005 constitution provides for an executive branch that reports to the president, a bicameral parliament, and an independent judiciary. In June, July, and August 2015, voters re-elected President Pierre Nkurunziza and chose a new National Assembly (lower house) in elections boycotted by nearly all independent opposition parties who claimed Nkurunziza’s election violated legal term limits. International and domestic observers characterized the elections as largely peaceful but deeply flawed and not free, fair, transparent, or credible.
Civilian authorities at times did not maintain control over the security forces. Observers considered the military generally professional and apolitical, but the National Intelligence Service (SNR) and police tended to be influenced directly by, and responsive to, the ruling National Council for the Defense of Democracy-Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD) party. Some armed elements within the CNDD-FDD’s youth group, the Imbonerakure, committed human rights violations at the instruction or direction of some senior officials in the SNR, police, army, and the President’s Office, but also at times operated independently of any identifiable oversight. Imbonerakure members abducted or detained individuals, 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 that authorities knew of and failed to punish their conduct. Individuals perceived to be members of the political opposition were specifically targeted. Police abuse was widespread and carried out with impunity.
The most significant human rights issues included extrajudicial killings; disappearances; torture and other cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, including rape of both male and female detainees; arbitrary arrest and politicized detention; prolonged pretrial detention; harsh and sometimes life-threatening prison conditions; a highly politicized judicial system that lacked independence from the executive branch; government infringement on the freedoms of speech, press and other media, peaceful assembly, and association; restrictions on freedom of movement; government corruption; restrictions on domestic and international human rights and civil society organizations; lack of prosecutions and accountability in cases of sexual and gender-based violence against women and girls; violence against persons with albinism; criminalization of same-sex sexual conduct; and inadequately enforced labor rights.
The reluctance of police and public prosecutors to investigate and prosecute and of judges to hear cases of government corruption and human rights abuse in a timely manner resulted in widespread impunity for government and CNDD-FDD officials.
Overt violence between the government and armed opposition groups was limited in comparison to 2015 and early 2016. Armed opposition groups committed acts of violence including attempted assassinations and ambushes of government officials, security forces, and ruling party members. There were at least 75 grenade attacks as of December, some of which killed civilians; some were linked to political violence, while others appeared to result from criminal activity or private vendettas.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
The constitution and law provide for freedom of speech and press but ban “defamatory” speech about the president and other officials, material deemed to endanger national security, and racial or ethnic hate speech. Restrictions on freedom of speech and press increased significantly following dissent against the president’s 2015 announcement that he would seek a third term in office and government accusations of media complicity in the 2015 failed coup. These restrictions continued and were applied to press outlets critical of the government or the human rights situation in the country. Journalists and outspoken critics reported harassment and intimidation by security services or government officials. Social media networks, primarily Twitter and WhatsApp, serve as news outlets, often replacing traditional news outlets. Forces allied to the CNDD-FDD repressed media perceived as sympathetic to the opposition, including print and radio journalists, through harassment, intimidation, and violence.
Freedom of Expression: The Penal Code, passed in 2009, protects public servants and the president against “words, gestures, threats, or writing of any kind” that is “abusive or defamatory” or would “impair the dignity of or respect for their office.” The law also prohibits racially or ethnically motivated hate speech. The law mandates a penalty of six months to five years in prison and a fine of 10,000 to 50,000 Burundian francs ($5.65 to $28.35) for insulting the head of state. Some journalists, lawyers, NGO personnel, and leaders of political parties and civil society alleged the government used the law to intimidate and harass them.
Press and Media Freedom: The government owned and operated a daily newspaper, Le Renouveau, and a radio/television station, Burundi National Television and Radio (RTNB). The directors general of both outlets report to the Presidency. Rema FM, a CNDD-FDD radio station, also enjoyed support from the government, although it was technically independent. Radio Isanganiro was the country’s largest independent radio station. Iwacu, an independent newspaper, continued to publish articles in French and English that were critical of the government and its policies. The family of an Iwacu journalist who disappeared in July 2016 reported that it received death threats throughout the year.
Government reports identified 20 public and independent radio stations, four community radio stations, 24 periodicals, and 12 press associations operating in the country. After being closed in the aftermath of the failed coup in 2015, Radio REMA FM, Radio Isanganiro, Radio Humuriza, and Maison de la Presse were reauthorized in February 2016 and continued operating during the year.
On September 28, the National Council for Communication (CNC) announced a decision to withdraw the licenses of Radio Bonesha, Radio Publique Africaine (RPA), and Radio/Television Renaissance for breaches of their agreements with the CNC or for not abiding by content regulations. These three stations had been shuttered by the government in 2015 after unidentified men destroyed their broadcasting equipment following the failed coup in May 2015. Radio Bonesha continued to operate a website and RPA continued to broadcast into the country from Rwanda. In the same communique the CNC also announced the suspension for three months of CCIB FM +, a radio station operated by the Federal Chamber of Commerce of Burundi (CFCIB), following a broadcast including critical coverage of the government’s response to the killing of 39 Burundian refugees in the DRC by Congolese security forces. CFCIB appealed the suspension to the CNC and dismissed the station’s editor in chief; there were reports he subsequently fled the country after receiving threats. In December the CNC announced the six-month suspension of Radio Ntumbero for violations of its charter and suspended for one month the opinion section of the Igihe news site. The CNC also revoked the licenses of other radio or television stations because they did not begin broadcasting in a timely manner.
In 2013 the government passed a media law that required journalists to reveal sources in some circumstances and prohibited the publication of articles deemed to undermine national security. In 2014 parliament revised the law following journalists’ successful appeal to the East African Court of Justice. The court’s decision caused parliament to remove from the media law some of its more draconian elements. Following the failed coup of May 2015, the government invoked the law to intimidate and detain journalists.
Reporters who were able to continue working complained that government agents harassed and threatened media that criticized the government and the CNDD-FDD. Journalists had difficulty corroborating stories, as local sources were intimidated.
Violence and Harassment: The majority of independent journalists fled the country since the political crisis and crackdown in 2015; very few had returned, citing threats to their safety. Several media outlets alleged they received explicit threats that they would be closed if they published or broadcast stories critical of the government. The government detained or summoned for questioning several local and international journalists investigating subjects such as human rights violations, corruption, or refugees fleeing the country. Journalists experienced violence and harassment at the hands of security service members and government officials.
On April 5, intelligence agents interrogated Joseph Nsabiyabandi, the editor in chief of Radio Isanganiro about his alleged collaboration with Burundian radio stations operating in exile in Rwanda. In July 2016 unknown men abducted Iwacu reporter Jean Bigirimana. Police and the SNR denied that he was in their custody. As of October, Bigirimana’s whereabouts remained unknown. According to media reports, his spouse received several anonymous death threats after his disappearance and subsequently fled the country with her children.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The government censors media content via restrictive press laws established by the CNC, an organization that is nominally independent but subject to political control in practice. In 2016 the CNC passed two decrees regarding media activity: one for domestic journalists and one for foreign outlets operating in the country. The first compels all journalists to register with the CNC annually. The second limits the access granted to international journalists and establishes content restrictions on the products disseminated by these outlets. As of October the government had not enforced these laws on a regular basis. Broadly interpreted laws against libel, hate speech, endangering state security, and treason also fostered self-censorship, including by journalists working for the national broadcaster. Those who did not self-censor reportedly faced “reassignment” to jobs where they did not have access to the public or were fired.
The CNC regulates both print and broadcast media, controls the accreditation of journalists, and enforces compliance with media laws. The president appoints all 15 members, who were mainly government representatives and journalists from the state broadcaster. According to Freedom House, observers regarded the CNC as a tool of the executive branch, as it regularly issued politicized rulings and sanctions against journalists and outlets.
Libel/Slander Laws: Libel laws prohibit the public distribution of information that exposes a person to “public contempt” and carry penalties of prison terms and fines. The crime of treason, which includes knowingly demoralizing the military or the country in a manner that endangers national defense during a time of war, carries a criminal penalty of life imprisonment. It is a crime for anyone knowingly to disseminate or publicize rumors likely to alarm or excite the public against the government or to promote civil war. It is illegal for anyone to display drawings, posters, photographs, or other items that may “disturb the public peace.” Penalties range from two months’ to three years’ imprisonment and fines. Some journalists, lawyers, and leaders of political parties, civil society groups, and NGOs alleged the government used these laws to intimidate and harass them.
Nongovernmental Impact: Many members of the governing party’s youth wing, the Imbonerakure, collaborated with government security forces. In some cases they were official members of mixed security councils, which comprise police, local administration officials, and civilians. Journalists and human rights defenders accused Imbonerakure members of acting as irregular security forces, using government resources to follow, threaten, and attack individuals they perceived as opposition supporters.
Actions to Expand Freedom of Expression, Including for the Media: In February 2016 the government announced it would allow two radio stations to resume broadcasting after their closure and destruction in 2015. As a condition for reopening, REMA FM (which supported the ruling party) and Radio Isanganiro (which was critical of the ruling party) were obliged to sign an agreement stating they would be “balanced and objective” and not threaten the country’s security. As of October both stations continued to operate.
According to the International Telecommunication Union’s 2016 survey, only 5 percent of individuals used the internet. Some citizens relied heavily on the social media platforms WhatsApp, Twitter, and Facebook on both internet and mobile telephone networks to get information about current events. There were no verifiable reports the government monitored email or internet chat rooms. One journalist reported harassment by security officials for the content of messages he composed on WhatsApp. Several radio stations that were closed after the failed coup continued to publish radio segments and articles online.
Beginning in late October, some media websites were occasionally unavailable to internet users in the country. Publications affected included the newspaper Iwacu, which was generally critical of the government, but also the generally progovernment online publication Ikiriho. There was no official comment on the outages; both the reason and mechanism remained unclear. In most cases the outages lasted a few days before access was restored.
ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS
There were allegations that hiring practices, student leadership elections, and provision of grades at the University of Burundi were subject to political interference in favor of CNDD-FDD members.
FREEDOM OF PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY
The constitution and law provide for freedom of peaceful assembly, but the government severely restricted this right (see section 1.d.). The law requires political parties and large groups to notify the government with details at least four days prior to a meeting, but even when notified, authorities in most cases denied permission for opposition members to meet and dispersed meetings already underway. By contrast, supporters of the CNDD-FDD and government officials were regularly able to organize demonstrations on short notice; these demonstrations were frequently large and included participation by senior officials.
Freedom of assembly was further restricted following the failed coup attempt in May 2015, and these restrictions remained in place. Members of the wing of the FNL political party associated with Agathon Rwasa alleged that government officials harassed or arrested supporters for holding unauthorized meetings. Other political parties reported being unable to hold party meetings or conduct political activities outside Bujumbura.
FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION
The constitution provides for freedom of association within the confines of the law, but the government severely restricted this right. On January 27, the government enacted new laws governing domestic CSOs. The law requires registration of CSOs with the Ministry of Interior (or with provincial governments if they operate in a single province), a complex process that includes approval for an organization’s activities from the Ministry of the Interior and other ministries depending on their areas of expertise. There is no recourse when authorities deny registration. The law provides for the suspension or permanent closure of organizations for “disturbing public order or harming state security.” Registration must be renewed every two years.
On January 23, the government also enacted a law restricting international NGOs. The law includes requirements that international NGOs deposit a portion of their budgets at the Bank of the Republic of Burundi and that they maintain ethnic balance in the recruitment of local personnel. The new law contains several clauses that give the government considerable control over NGO selection and programming. In November an international NGO was instructed to suspend its agricultural programs due to a disagreement with the Ministry of Agriculture on program design; in December another international NGO was expelled for allegedly distributing rotten seeds.
In October 2016 the government permanently banned five CSOs that it claimed were part of the political opposition. In December 2016 the government announced its intention to ban Ligue Iteka, the country’s oldest human rights organization, for “sow[ing] hate and division among the Burundian population following a social media campaign created by the International Federation of Human Rights and Ligue Iteka in which a mock movie trailer accused the president of planning genocide.” The ban took effect on January 3; Ligue Iteka continued to operate from Uganda and report on conditions in Burundi. As of year’s end there were no further reported closings of CSOs.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
The constitution and law provide for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, but the government severely restricted these rights.
The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern.
In-country Movement: According to several news sources, the government enforced the use of “cahiers de menage,” booklets that listed the residents and domestic workers of each household in some neighborhoods of the capital. In numerous instances police arrested persons during neighborhood searches for not being registered in household booklets. Persons who attempted to cross the border to flee violence and reach refugee camps were sometimes stopped and turned back by police, the SNR, or Imbonerakure members. Stateless persons also faced restrictions on movement, since in addition to not having identification papers, they cannot apply for driver’s licenses and cannot travel freely throughout the country.
The government strongly encouraged citizens to participate in community-level work projects every Saturday morning and imposed travel restrictions on citizens from 8:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. Authorities required permits for movement outside of one’s community during those hours, and police enforced the restrictions through roadblocks. There were reports that members of the Imbonerakure compelled individuals to engage in community work, including an instance in which Imbonerakure members compelled travelers on buses to disembark and participate. Persons could obtain waivers in advance. Foreign residents were exempt.
Foreign Travel: The price of passports was 235,000 Burundian francs ($133). The government issued arrest warrants against members of the opposition group National Council for the Respect of the Arusha Accord and the Rule of Law, whom it accused of participation in the May 2015 failed coup, that were also circulated as Red Notices by the International Police Organization (INTERPOL). Authorities required exit visas for foreign nationals who held nonofficial passports; these visas cost 48,000 Burundian francs ($28) per month to maintain. Stateless persons cannot apply for a passport and cannot travel outside the country.
INTERNALLY DISPLACED PERSONS (IDPS)
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) counted approximately 187,626 IDPs displaced as of December. According to IOM, 69 percent were displaced due to natural disasters while 31 percent were displaced for political or social reasons. Some IDPs reported feeling threatened because of their perceived political sympathies. Some IDPs attempted to return to their homes, but the majority remained in IDP sites or relocated to urban centers. The government generally permitted IDPs at identified sites to be included in programs provided by UNHCR, IOM, and other humanitarian organizations, such as shelter and legal assistance programs.
PROTECTION OF REFUGEES
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has a system for providing protection to refugees.
UNHCR estimated 63,234 refugees were in the country as of September. Of these approximately 61,995 were Congolese refugees, including new arrivals during the year. Continuing violence in the DRC prevented their return. Efforts to resettle Congolese refugees in third countries, begun in 2015, continued.
Employment: The employment of refugees was subject to restrictions. The government is a signatory to the 1951 UN Convention Related to the Status of Refugees and 1967 Protocol on the Status of Refugees, but with a reservation regarding the employment of refugees that meant Burundian nationals had preferred access to employment opportunities over refugees. In 2016 the government committed to lifting these reservations, but as of December had not taken steps to do so.
Access to Basic Services: Refugees residing in camps administered by the government and the United Nations and its partners received basic services. The large percentage of refugees residing in urban areas also accessed services, such as education, health care, and other assistance offered by humanitarian organizations.
According to UNHCR an estimated 974 persons at risk of statelessness lived in the country as of October 2016. All were from Oman, were awaiting proof of citizenship from the government of Oman, and had lived in Burundi for decades. Most of those who remained at risk of statelessness had refused an offer of Burundian citizenship from the government if they could not get Omani citizenship. Stateless persons face limited freedom of movement as they were ineligible for driver’s licenses and passports.
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Rape and Domestic Violence: The law prohibits rape, including spousal rape, with penalties of up to 30 years’ imprisonment. The law prohibits domestic abuse of a spouse, with punishment ranging from fines to three to five years’ imprisonment. The government did not enforce the law uniformly, and rape and other domestic and sexual violence continued to be serious problems. On April 8, following the inauguration of a CNDD-FDD party office in the eastern province of Ruyigi, an estimated 200 persons, including Imbonerakure, chanted a song urging impregnation of female opposition members so that more Imbonerakure would be born, which was widely interpreted as threatening rape.
In September 2016 the government adopted a law that provides for the creation of a special gender-based crimes court, makes gender-based violence crimes unpardonable, and provides stricter punishment for police officers and judges who conceal violent crimes against women and girls. As of October the special court had not been created, and no police or judges had been prosecuted under the new law.
The Unit for the Protection of Minors and Morals in the Burundian National Police is responsible for investigating cases of sexual violence and rape, as well as those involving the trafficking of girls and women. The government, with financial support from international NGOs and the United Nations, continued civic awareness training throughout the country on domestic and gender-based violence and on the role of police assistance. Those trained included police, local administrators, and grassroots community organizers. The government-operated Humura Center in Gitega provided a full range of services, including legal, medical, and psychosocial services, to survivors of domestic and sexual violence. As of early December, the center had received 197 cases of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV).
Reports by Amnesty International and the IRRI stated that some female refugees had fled Burundi after surviving SGBV, including violence perpetrated by authorities.
Credible observers stated many women were reluctant to report rape, in part due to fear of reprisal.
Sexual Harassment: The law prohibits sexual harassment, including the use of threats of physical violence or psychological pressure to obtain sexual favors. Punishment for sexual harassment may range from a fine to a prison sentence of one month to two years. The sentence for sexual harassment doubles if the victim is younger than 18. The government did not actively enforce the law. There were reports of sexual harassment but no data on its frequency or extent.
Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion, involuntary sterilization, or other coercive population control methods. Estimates on maternal mortality and contraceptive prevalence are available at: www.who.int/reproductivehealth/publications/monitoring/maternal-mortality-2015/en/ .
Discrimination: The law provides for equal status for women and men, including under family, labor, property, nationality, and inheritance laws. Women continued to face legal, economic, and societal discrimination, including with regard to inheritance and marital property laws.
By law women must receive the same pay as men for the same work, but they did not (see section 7.d.). Some employers suspended the salaries of women on maternity leave, and others refused medical coverage to married female employees.
In May, President Nkurunziza signed into law new regulations requiring unmarried couples to legalize their relationships through church or state registrations.
Birth Registration: The constitution states that citizenship derives from the parents. The government registers, without charge, the births of all children if registered within a few days of birth and an unregistered child may not have access to some public services. For additional information, see Appendix C.
Education: Education is tuition-free, compulsory, and universal through the secondary level, but students are responsible for paying for books and uniforms. Throughout the country provincial officials charged parents fees for schooling.
Child Abuse: The law prohibits violence against or abuse of children, with punishment ranging from fines to three to five years’ imprisonment, but child abuse was a widespread problem. The penalty for rape of a minor is 10 to 30 years’ imprisonment.
The traditional practice of removing a newborn child’s uvula (the flesh that hangs down at the rear of the mouth) continued to cause numerous infections and deaths of infants.
Early and Forced Marriage: The legal age for marriage is 18 for girls and 21 for boys. Forced marriages are illegal and were rare, although they reportedly occurred in southern, more heavily Muslim, areas. The Ministry of Interior continued an effort to convince imams not to officiate over illegal marriages. For additional information, see Appendix C.
Sexual Exploitation of Children: The minimum age for consensual sex is 18. The penalty for commercial sexual exploitation of children is five to 10 years in prison and a fine of between 20,000 and 50,000 Burundian francs ($11 and $28). The law punishes child pornography by fines and three to five years in prison. There were no prosecutions during the year.
Women and girls were smuggled to other countries in Africa and the Middle East, sometimes using falsified documents, putting them at high risk of exploitation.
Displaced Children: Thousands of children lived on the streets throughout the country, some of them HIV/AIDS orphans. The government provided street children with minimal educational support and relied on NGOs for basic services, such as medical care and economic support. Independent Observers reported that children living on the streets faced brutality and theft by police and judged that police were more violent toward them during the 2015 political unrest than previously. A government campaign to “clean the streets” by ending vagrancy and unlicensed commerce, begun in 2016, resulted in the detention of hundreds of persons living or working on the streets. The campaign continued during the year and intensified as the government established a goal of having no children or adults living on the streets by the end of the year. The Council of Ministers approved a roadmap for ending vagrancy that would require the return of detained children and adults to their commune of origin; as of October this provision was not implemented.
International Child Abductions: The country is not a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at travel.state.gov/content/childabduction/en/legal/compliance.html.
No estimate was available on the size of the Jewish community. There were no reports of anti-Semitic acts.
Trafficking in Persons
See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/.
Persons with Disabilities
The constitution prohibits discrimination against persons with disabilities, but the government did not promote or protect the rights of persons with disabilities. Although persons with disabilities are eligible for free health care through social programs targeting vulnerable groups, authorities did not widely publicize or provide benefits. Employers often required job applicants to present a health certificate from the Ministry of Public Health stating they did not have a contagious disease and were fit to work, a practice that sometimes resulted in discrimination against persons with disabilities.
No legislation mandates access to buildings, information, or government services for persons with disabilities. The government supported a center for physical therapy in Gitega and a center for social and professional inclusion in Ngozi for persons with physical disabilities.
The Twa, the original hunter-gatherer inhabitants of the country, numbered an estimated 80,000, or approximately 1 percent of the population, according to the OHCHR. They generally remained economically, politically, and socially marginalized. By law local administrations must provide free schoolbooks and health care for all Twa children. Local administrations largely fulfilled these requirements. The constitution provides for three appointed seats for Twa in each of the houses of parliament, and Twa parliamentarians (including one woman) took their seats in August 2015.
Acts of Violence, Discrimination, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
Since 2009 Burundi has criminalized consensual same-sex conduct. Article 567 of the penal code penalizes consensual same-sex sexual relations by adults with up to two years in prison. There were no reports of prosecution for same-sex sexual acts during the year. There were cases, however, of harassment, intimidation, arbitrary arrests, and demands for bribes by police officers and members of the Imbonerakure targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex individuals.
Other Societal Violence or Discrimination
Criminals sometimes murdered persons with albinism, particularly children, for their body parts to be used for ritual purposes. Most perpetrators were reportedly citizens of other countries who came to kill and then departed the country with the body parts, impeding government efforts to arrest them. According to the Albino Women’s Hope Association chairperson, society did not accept persons with albinism, and they were often unemployed and isolated. Women with albinism often were “chased out by their families because they are considered as evil beings.”