OPED: Time to release Burundian human rights defender Germain Rukuki

One early morning three years ago, dozens of members of the security forces raided the house of Burundian human rights activist, Germain Rukuki, in the capital Bujumbura. Germain and his wife, who was then pregnant with their third child, were interrogated for hours about the nature of their work, before security forces took Germain away to the National Intelligence Service (Service national de renseignement - SNR).

Germain is currently serving an outrageous 32-year prison sentence simply for advocating for human rights. It is time to put an end to this injustice and set him free.

Germain is currently serving an outrageous 32-year prison sentence simply for advocating for human rights. Now that Burundi has a new government, which has promised a new dawn, it is time to put an end to this injustice and set him free.

Prior to Germain’s arrest, civil society organizations, including his then employer – Association of Christians Against Torture (ACAT) - Burundi – had organized mass protests against late President Pierre Nkurunziza’s decision to run for a third term in office, which was widely considered to be unconstitutional. The demonstrations were violently dispersed by security forces as well as the ruling party’s increasingly militarised youth wing, the Imbonerakure.

In fact, since that time, the Nkurunziza government systematically targeted any real or perceived dissenting voices, including human rights defenders, many of whom had to flee the country.

The process that resulted in Germain’s conviction was anything but fair. He was interrogated at the SNR office for close to two weeks without his lawyers.

The process that resulted in Germain’s conviction was anything but fair. He was interrogated at the SNR office, where many who have entered have never been heard of again. The SNR office is renowned for torture and killings. Germain was there for close to two weeks without his lawyers, before being transferred to the overcrowded Ngozi Prison in the north of the country.

Trumped up charges

When the charges against him were published in August 2017, they included “threatening state security” and “rebellion” for previously working with ACAT-Burundi. (ACAT-Burundi, along with several other civil society organizations, had been deregistered in October 2016 by the Burundian authorities on accusations of “tarnishing the image of the country” and “sowing hatred and division among the Burundian population”.) 

As if the above trumped up charges were not enough, the Prosecution added the charges of “assassination”, “destruction of public and private buildings” and “participation in an insurrectionist movement” on the first day of Germain’s trial. The Prosecution argued that Germain was part of “the insurrection movement of 2015” – referring to the mass demonstrations against the late president’s third term.

When the charges against him were published, they included “threatening state security” and “rebellion” for previously working with the Association of Christians against Torture (ACAT) - Burundi. The Prosecution added the charges of “assassination”, “destruction of public and private buildings” and “participation in an insurrectionist movement” on the first day of his trial.

In its verdict of 26 April 2018, the court acquitted Germain of the “assassination” and “destruction of public and private buildings” charges but handed him a 32-year prison sentence on the three other charges. He was sentenced on the third anniversary of the start of the 2015 protest - a coincidence which many saw as loaded with chilling meaning.

As Burundi’s new government gets to work, it is the hope of Burundians that it will turn its back on the years of repression that characterized President Nkurunziza’s tenure and embark on a new era of respect for human rights. The new government must mark this new era with swift action to reopen the country’s civic space. The authorities must ensure that the Burundian people regain full enjoyment of their human rights. The release of Germain Rukuki, whose only fault was to speak out and defend people’s rights, would be a clear step in the right direction and an encouraging sign of change.

Cruelly deprived of his father, Germain’s youngest child – now aged three – only knows him through photographs. The legal and moral imperative of Germain’s case requires his immediate and unconditional release, including the quashing his conviction and sentence.

President Evariste Ndayishimiye has vowed to uphold human rights and open civic space in Burundi, and it is now time to act. Releasing Germain would be a fantastic start.

This article was first published in Jeune Afrique’s Africa Report