Burundi: Referendum marred by harassment and intimidation
A constitutional referendum in Burundi that could extend the president’s term in office has been severely marred by a government crackdown on freedom of expression, Amnesty International said ahead of Thursday’s vote.
President Pierre Nkurunziza may be able to remain in power until 2034 if a proposed amendment to the constitution is adopted, but the run-up to the referendum has been tainted by violence and increasing repression of dissent.
Hundreds of thousands of people have fled the country since 2015 in fear for their lives – including many leading activists and opposition politicians – and the space for dissenting views has been all but closed down by the authorities.
“Hundreds of thousands of people have fled the country since 2015 in fear for their lives – including many leading activists and opposition politicians – and the space for dissenting views has been all but closed down by the authorities,” said Rachel Nicholson, Amnesty International’s Burundi Researcher.
Burundi has experienced a political and human rights crisis since President Nkurunziza announced his decision to stand for a third term in office in April 2015. His decision was followed by widespread street protests that were violently repressed leaving scores dead and hundreds injured, and a failed coup attempt in May 2015.
The referendum is taking place ahead of the conclusion of a dialogue convened under the auspices of the East African Community aimed at ending the crisis.
The proposed amendments to the Constitution stem from a national Inter-Burundian Dialogue, which was held without the participation of the exiled political opponents or independent civil society. The referendum is taking place ahead of the conclusion of a dialogue convened under the auspices of the East African Community aimed at ending the crisis.
Tensions have increased in recent weeks in the run-up to the controversial referendum. During the official campaign period there were frequent reports of arrests, beatings and intimidation of those campaigning for a ‘No’ vote.
On 4 May, the government suspended radio broadcasts from Voice of America and the BBC, while human rights defender Germain Rukuki was sentenced to 32 years in prison on 26 April for “threatening state security” among other charges, solely on account of his human rights work.
On the night of 11 May, unidentified armed men attacked the village of Ruhagarika, in the northern Cibitoke Province, killing 26 people. Burundi’s Prosecutor General said the attack would be investigated.
The attack in Ruhagarika tragically illustrated the tense environment in which the referendum is taking place and the risks of further abuses.
“The attack in Ruhagarika tragically illustrated the tense environment in which the referendum is taking place and the risks of further abuses. The authorities must ensure the investigation into the incident is thorough and impartial, and that those suspected of responsibility are brought to justice in fair trials,” said Rachel Nicholson.
“The reports of arrests, beatings and intimidation of real and perceived opponents of the constitutional amendments suggest the human rights situation in Burundi is only getting worse.”
Burundians will vote on the revised constitution on Thursday 17 May. If adopted, the presidential term will be extended from five to seven years, with office-holders eligible to stand for two consecutive terms. A former office-holder could stand again after one term out of office.
The proposed constitutional amendments would also strengthen the authority of the ruling party, including by reducing the size of the majority required to adopt legislation in parliament, and banning coalitions of independent politicians.
Another proposed revision mandates the Senate to review the existing system of ethnic quotas in the executive, the legislature and the judiciary - one of the major outcomes of the 2000 Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement which helped bring an end to civil war.