By Millicent Zighe and Gilbert Niyonkuru
Over 200 people have been arrested in Burundi since the beginning of the year. The figure is the highest ever over a short four months in the ongoing government crackdown on opposition members since President Pierre Nkurunzinza’s controversial re-election in 2015.
Every week, members of the opposition parties are rounded up and ill-treated at the hands of the national intelligence agents and members of Imbonerakure militia group. Human rights monitors reckon that members of the National Congress for Freedom (CNL) and Front for Democracy Burundi (FRODEBU) are the primary targets of the crackdown.
Burundi’s government has used arbitrary arrests, torture and even assassinations to silence the administration’s critics. Details around the arrest of six members of the CNL party on February 15, 2019 buttress reports of secret detention sites in different parts of the country where opposition supporters are held. Witnesses told human rights monitors that the six were transported to Miguna Police Station for holding a meeting that was not licensed.
A number of opposition members have disappeared after arrest. Members of Imbonerakure arrested four members of CNL on March 17. The relatives of one of them — Eric Niyorugira — say they have not heard from him since.
On March 30, members of the public witnessed Imbonerakure arrest three CNL members in Gihanga for a similar offence. Guarantees of freedom of assembly and association in Burundi’s constitution have done little to discourage the government’s crackdown on dissent.
Harassment of opposition activists had become so commonplace that even members of the ruling party began speaking out. Elias Sinzinkayo was arrested in Mugina Commune for criticizing fellow members of CNDD-FDD for their attitude towards their opponents.
The government has also been accused of arresting people who refuse to join the ruling party National Council for the Defense of Democracy – Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD) and sometimes executing them.
Four Muslim men were arrested for speaking out against the ruling party and refusing to join the party. Nkurunzinzas’s government has waged a campaign aimed at controlling the Muslim Community. Many Muslim representatives have since been tortured for their defiance.
A secret recording of phone conversation surfaced earlier in April of a police officer threatening members of CNL. “If you want to disrupt security, I’II finish with you there, and if you are with your wife and children, you’ll go together,” the police officer is heard saying.
Sometimes Imbonerakure, young members of the ruling party, and police arrest opposition activists and imprison them in secret locations.
Jean-Marie Nkurunziza, a teacher at the Matyazo Basic School of Vugizo commune in Makamba Province, was arrested on November 26, 2018. A dozen young Imbonerakure surrounded him as he was having a drink and seized him. They reported his seizure to local administrative authorities before they took him to Makamba Police Station.
Nkurunziza is a member of the Sahwanya Frodebu-Nyakuri party that is part of the opposition platform CNARED. Authorities in Makamba Province, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Jean-Marie Nkurunziza had tarnished the image of Gad Niyukuri, the area governor. Nkurunziza, who was a teacher at Matyazo Basic School, was transferred from the Makamba police station to the intelligence service. His family does not know his whereabouts to date.
In the eastern province of Cankuzo, 20-year-old Ngabonziza from Rusagara Hill in Kigamba commune was arrested by intelligence agents on October 25, 2018 for allegedly working in a pharmacy owned by a Rwandan, Justin Ndayiragije. Intelligence officers were said to have been searching for Ndayiragije for several months. Ngabonziza’s family and his friends insist that the pharmacist is not a Rwandan. Ngabonziza was reportedly held in the house of a member of the intelligence service in Cankuzo.
There was a dramatic twist to the story of Ngabonziza’s disappearance when members of his family claimed intelligence agents reached out to them seeking more than two million Burundian francs for his release.
An influential member of FNL, Amizero y’Abarundi, was last seen riding out of Cankuzo on a motorcycle. “This man from the hill Rusigabangazi Gisagara commune (Cankunzo) disappeared with someone who rode on a motorcycle,” reveals his family.
Cases of arbitrary arrests are also rampant in Karusi province. The local administrator reportedly ordered to arrest Larissa Murerangondo for insulting him. Larissa’s neighbours say the young woman has been unfairly accused, and that there were ulterior motives behind her arrest. “Larissa refused to give her plot to the administrator. She was transferred after her arrest to a prison in the capital of Karusi province.”