Calling out Burundi on impunity

By Rachel Nicholson, Burundi and Rwanda Researcher, Amnesty International

President Pierre Nkurunziza’s decision to run for a third term in office in April 2015 sparked a crisis that continues today.  When people took to the streets in protest, they were met with violent repression by the police. The crackdown on dissent continued following a failed coup attempt in May 2015. Crimes under international law and human rights violations were committed. Hundreds of people were killed, with bodies turning up in the streets almost every morning in late 2015. The use of torture intensified and hundreds of people disappeared. Hundreds of thousands have sought refuge in neighboring countries. Many human rights defenders and journalists who protested the third term or spoke out about the crisis are now living in exile.

Meanwhile the crisis continues against the backdrop of the government narrative of stabilization. Entrenched repression and control over the population has become the new normal, squeezing out space for dissent while egregious human rights violations continue.

Join your voice to ours to demand truth and justice.

Abacu (Our People), is a campaign to remember victims and survivors of atrocities committed since the crisis began as we call out the Government of Burundi on this culture of impunity. The stories of these five victims and two survivors of violence that started in April 2015 show how the government has failed to address the issue of impunity in Burundi.   

  1. Jean Népomucène Komezamahoro - Those suspected of criminal responsibility for his death still wear police uniform
Young teenage boy seated on the ground smiling with his hands crossed at his knees. Young teenage boy seated on the ground smiling with his hands crossed at his knees.
Jean Népomucène Komezamahoro - killed

Jean Népomucène Komezamahoro, or simply Jean Népo to his family and friends, was only 15, when his life was cut short by a bullet from the police.

A demonstrator recounted to Amnesty International how he witnessed the police shooting of Jean Népo on 26 April 2015 near Hope University in Ngagara 2, a neighbourhood in the city capital Bujumbura. According to witness and relatives, Jean Népo had not taken part in the demonstrations.

“The demonstrators went to quartier 8, Avenue Buconyori. The police came from the side of    Mutakura with Commissaire Ayubu and started shooting. Jean fled towards a gate. He couldn’t get through because the people inside had locked it out of fear. Jean turned back and stumbled across some stones and fell and the police shot him in the head. He went on his knees and told the police he was not a demonstrator. He didn’t have anything in his hands. The police shot him and policemen, including Ayubu, fled and went towards Kanyoni. Police also shot at other demonstrators to scatter them.”-A demonstrator who witnessed the shooting.

The death certificate stated that Jean Népomucène Komezamahoro died in a “shoot-out”.

Authorities have not conducted any investigation on the killing of Jean Népo.

  1. Zedi Feruzi – A political opposition party leader, killed together with one of his bodyguards
Man in a suit and tie Man in a suit and tie
Zedi Feruzi - killed

On 23 May 2015 around 7.30pm, Zedi Feruzi, president of the opposition party, Union for Peace and Democracy-Zigamibanga (Union pour la paix et la démocratie-Zigamibanga) and one of his bodyguards from police units in charge of protection of political leaders and institutions - Appui pour la Protection des Institutions – API, were killed in Ngagara, while he was walking home. Jean-Baptiste Bireha, a journalist who was seriously injured during the incident, told France Inter in a radio interview that the attackers were wearing API uniforms.

Two other eyewitnesses confirmed that they recognized the police as belonging to the API. One of the eyewitnesses recognized one of the policemen. On the same day, a communiqué on the website of President Nkurunziza instructed the relevant authorities to investigate as swiftly as possible.

To date, no one has been brought to court for the killing of Zedi Feruzi. His wife has been forced to go into exile.

  1. Jean Bigirimana- A journalist whose disappearance is yet to be explained
Portrait photo of a young man Portrait photo of a young man
Jean Bigirimana - disappeared

Before his disappearance, Jean Bigirimana worked for the Burundian independent weekly newspaper, Iwacu. On 22 July 2016, Jean left his home in the capital, Bujumbura, for Bugarama in Muramvya province. While on his way there, he disappeared.

According to Iwacu, he left his home after receiving a call from the National Intelligence Service (SNR).

Three days after his disappearance, police spokesperson Pierre Nkurikiye denied that the security forces had arrested Jean. Willy Nyamitwe, then Communication Advisor to the President, stated that that the government was investigating the matter. The National Independent Human Rights Commission conducted an investigation into Jean’s disappearance. On 5 August 2016, the Commission ended its investigation stating that it failed to locate Jean or find more information on his whereabouts.

Over the past six months, Jean’s wife, Godeberthe Hakizimana has received serious threats for speaking out about the disappearance of her husband. In March 2017, threating graffiti was found at a shop she owned in front of her house. In June, Iwacu reported that a tract was left at her house asking her to stop travelling the world speaking ill of her country to UN investigators on human rights violations and abuses in Burundi.

To date, there has been no news about the whereabouts of Jean. His colleagues at Iwacu and his family fear the worst might have happened to him.

  1. Esdras Ndikumana – Journalist arrested and tortured for doing his job
Man seated in front of a computer, look away from the computer. Man seated in front of a computer, look away from the computer.
Esdras Ndikumana - tortured

Esdras Ndikumana is a well-known Burundian journalist who works as a correspondent for Radio France Internationale (RFI) and Agence France Presse. He was arrested by the SNR on 2 August 2015 as he was taking photos at the scene where General Adolphe Nshimirimana was killed. He was tortured while in detention.

Esdras was preparing to go to church on the morning of 2 August 2015 when he received news of the killing of General Adolphe Nshimirimana, a former head of the SNR. He decided to stop by the place where the general had been killed before going to church. Arriving at the scene, due to the heavy military presence, he was cautious and took time to look around to assess if it was safe for him to do his job. He recognized a couple of government officials and security officers at the scene and asked for authorization before starting to take pictures. Then he saw three men talking to each other. The three men called a lower-ranking officer and pointed in Esdras’ direction. The officer took Esdras and violently put him in a pick-up vehicle. While in the pick-up, Esdras was punched a few times as Burundian officials at the scene watched.  He was then taken into custody at the SNR headquarters in Bujumbura where he says he was tortured for about two hours.

The office of President Nkurunziza quickly condemned the incident through a press release on 13 August 2015. It stated that an investigation into allegations of Esdras’s torture in detention would be launched and those found responsible prosecuted and punished. As time passed, Esdras and his employers realized that none of these actions promised by the presidency had happened. They decided to introduce a formal complaint against X [a form of complaint where the victim is not able to identify the perpetrators of the violations] on 19 October 2015 to the Prosecutor General. In late 2016, the prosecutor in charge of the case asked Esdras to provide the names of those who beat him in order for him to start the investigation. However, with a complaint of this nature, the prosecutor does not need to be given names before starting an investigation.

Esdras has since been victim of an online smear campaign from supporters of the current government in Burundi. In May 2016, the Minister of Public Security accused Esdras of bias in his reporting, serving foreign interest, and promoting crime and violence in Burundi.

He currently lives in exile.

  1. Pierre Claver Mbonimpa- Human rights defender who survived an attempted assassination
Profile picture of an elder man in a pensive mood holding up his chin in his hand. Profile picture of an elder man in a pensive mood holding up his chin in his hand.
Pierre Claver Mbonimpa - attempted assasination

On 3 August 2015, Pierre Claver Mbonimpa narrowly survived an assassination attempt in Bujumbura as he was on his way home from work. Mbonimpa is President of the Association for the Protection of Human Rights and Detained Persons (APRODH). He was one of the strongest critics of President Pierre Nkurunziza’s bid for a third term in office in 2015. The attack took place a day after the assassination of General Adolphe Nshimirimana, chief security advisor to the Presidency. In a critical condition having been shot in the neck, Mbonimpa was allowed to seek treatment abroad.

Following the attempted assassination in August 2015, several members of Mbonimpa’s family were subjected to threats and surveillance. In October 2015, Pascal Nshimirimana, Mbonimpa’s son-in-law, was killed by security forces outside his house. A month later, Welly Fleury Nzitonda, Mbonimpa’s son was also killed by security forces. It is believed their assassinations were linked to Mbonimpa and APRODH’s human rights work.

To date, no investigation results have been published on this case and no one has been held accountable for this crime.

Mr Mbonimpa currently lives in exile.

  1. Welly-Fleury Nzitonda – Son of a prominent government critic, killed by police
Young man in a red polo shirt. Young man in a red polo shirt.
Welly-Fleury Nzitonda - killed

On 6 November 2015, police officers killed Welly Fleury Nzitonda. He was the son of Pierre Claver Mbonimpa, a prominent human rights activist from Burundi who survived an assassination attempt just three months earlier.

On the day he was killed, Welly had returned to collect some belongings from his house in the Mutakura area of Bujumbura. He was stopped by police officers doing a routine patrol around 11 am. After discovering that Welly was in fact the son of Mbonimpa, the officers reportedly arrested him. The officers took him to a house where he was reportedly killed by the local police chief. His body was discovered later the same day.  

The killing of Welly followed the attempted assassination of his father on 3 August and the killing of his brother-in-law on 9 October the same year.

Recuperating from bullet wounds sustained during the attempt on his life, Mbonimpa was unable to attend his son’s funeral. Instead, he sent a message encouraging Burundians to keep hope alive that the crisis in Burundi will one day be over.

  1. Marie-Claudette Kwizera – Human rights activist abducted by security officers
Young woman Young woman
Marie-Claudette Kwizera - disappeared

Marie Claudette Kwizera, a Burundian human rights activist and treasurer of Ligue Iteka, Burundi’s first human rights organization, has been missing since 10 December 2015. Kwizera was abducted by individuals believed to be members of the SNR near the Central Polyclinic of Bujumbura.

On 12 December 2015, two days after Kwizera’s abduction, a SNR agent informed Kwizera’s family that she was detained at the SNR’s office and asked for 3.5 million Burundian francs (about 2000 USD) as ransom. Despite paying the ransom, Kwizera’s family was never informed of her whereabouts. Her family later filed a complaint about this matter and the agent was arrested, but later released, according to Ligue Iteka. On 13 January 2016, one of Kwizera’s relatives went to the SNR office only to be told that she was not in the premises.

Marie Claudette’s disappearance prompted the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) to start an online campaign #FreeMarieClaudette and #SaveMarieClaudette, calling for an independent investigation into her disappearance.

Until today, her whereabouts continue to be unknown. Many fear she was killed.

Unsatisfactory efforts to address impunity in Burundi

After intense pressure from national and international organizations, the Government of Burundi established two commissions of inquiry to look into events related to the crisis since April 2015.  The first looked into the “insurrectional movement” bypassing serious investigations into excessive use of force in response to the 2015 protests. The other commission focused on the events of December 2015 and the discovery of mass graves. According to its findings, all those found dead in the neighbourhoods of Musaga, Ngagara and Nyakabiga in Bujumbura had participated in the fighting. Only one person described as ‘mentally insane’ was said to have been caught in crossfire. This conclusion contradicts findings of many independent organizations, including Amnesty International. In fact, after attacks by armed opposition groups at three military installations between 11 and 12 December 2015, security forces carried out cordon-and-search operations in which many people were killed by bullets to the head and at least one body was found tied up.

The Government of Burundi has failed to take effective measures to bring all those suspected of criminal responsibility for crimes under international law and serious human rights violations to justice.

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