Burundi: Two years on and no word on forcibly disappeared journalist Jean Bigirimana

By Rachel Nicholson, Amnesty International’s Researcher on Rwanda and Burundi

The devastation wrought on Burundi’s once dynamic media sector was one of the major fallouts of the crisis sparked by President Pierre Nkurunziza decision in April 2015 to run for a controversial third term in the office.

In the aftermath of the failed coup d’etat of 13 May 2015 following the elections, troops loyal to the president unleashed their anger on media houses that had broadcast the coup plotters’ announcements. As a result, privately owned media Radio Tele Renaissance, Radio Publique Africaine, Isanganiro and Bonesha FM were attacked and some were partially destroyed by Burundian security forces. Rema FM, a media house close to the ruling party, was also burned down by armed individuals on 13 May after a military officer told the staff to leave the building.

Many journalists fled the country and others went into hiding as a result, but a few others decided to stay and openly continue their work. Jean Bigirimana, who worked for the Iwacu media group, was one of them. He has been missing since 22 July 2016, the day he was arrested and forcibly disappeared by agents believed to be of the National Intelligence Agency (SNR).

Journalism was his passion

“Jean studied law in school, but journalism was his passion”, Godeberthe Hakizimana, Jean Bigirmana’s wife, told us. “He was very social and worked very hard” she said. Jean’s enforced disappearance has been devastating for everyone who knew him – his colleagues at Iwacu media group, but most especially his young family.

Jean was born in 1979 in Cankuzo province in eastern Burundi. He and Godeberthe have two sons.  

On the day he was last seen, one of his colleagues received an anonymous call alerting them that he had been arrested in Bugarama, in Muramvya province (around 45km from the capital Bujumbura) by the National Intelligence Service (SNR).

Iwacu immediately launched an investigation to establish Jean’s whereabouts, which the Burundian police and the Burundian National Independent Human Rights Commission (CNIDH) later joined.

The newspaper’s investigations led to the discovery of two bodies in the Mubarazi River in August 2016. Some believed that one of the bodies may have been Jean’s, since he went missing nearby. When the Iwacu team, the police, intelligence officers and members of the CNIDH arrived at the scene, the bodies were in an advanced state of decomposition but Godeberthe was later able to confirm that neither of the bodies was her husband’s. Without any further identification process, the bodies were buried by the Burundian authorities.

Jean’s family and colleagues maintained the hope of finding him alive. However, in a press briefing on 5 August 2016 the CNIDH said that they had checked all detentions centres, including official SNR’s detention centres in Muramvya, but had not found any trace of Jean. Since then, there has only been painful silence from the Burundian authorities on Jean’s whereabouts, to the distress of his family and friends.

Is Dad still alive?

Godeberthe continued to seek the truth about what happened to her husband, but began to receive threats to her life, including anonymous calls asking her to stop speaking up about her husband’s disappearance. In June 2017, a note with death threats was left in front of her home, citing her alleged collaboration with a team of UN investigators. When she went to the police station to report the incident, the police officer told her to go back home and wait for a response. The response never came. 

One can only imagine the trauma Jean’s family is going through, especially his children. Godeberthe told Amnesty: “Until today, the children ask me a lot of questions, especially the oldest son. Last time he asked me: Maman, is Dad still alive? I answered, no. He is no longer alive.” The boy, who is just 10 years old, has been having nightmares and has told his mother that he thinks about his father a lot.

Godeberthe has to work hard to provide for her family. She has started a small business selling vegetables in a market, but making ends meet remains a challenge.

Failure to tackle impunity

The Burundian government’s failure to carry out a thorough, impartial, transparent and effective investigation into Jean’s disappearance is an affront to truth, justice and accountability. Despite being one of the rare cases where the Burundian authorities have gone on record and promised to do all in their power to find out what exactly happened, they have as yet failed to come up with any findings.

The government of Burundi is instead sparing no effort to deny accusations that the country’s justice system is failing to tackle impunity. But it is hard to believe that a system that is incapable of establishing the basic facts regarding such a high-profile case as Jean’s will be able to ensure access of people to justice and effective remedies.

Two years after Jean was subjected to enforced disappearance, it is important to remind the Burundian authorities of their international human rights obligations to establish the truth, ensure justice and accountability in Jean’s case and other similar cases.

Let the authorities know that Jean’s family is devastated by his enforced disappearance and can’t wait for him to come back home.

Join us and sign the petition calling on Burundian authorities to ensure truth, justice and accountability in Jean’s case, and end impunity for attacks on the media:  https://www.amnesty.org/en/get-involved/take-action/end-impunity-in-burundi/

*Abacu Campaign: In 2015, Amnesty International launched the Abacu (Our People) campaign to remember and honour victims of human rights violations in Burundi

This blog was first published on 26 July 2018 by La Libre Afrique.