By Millicent Zighe
Pressure is mounting on the Burundi government to release political detainees, starting with those who have already served their sentences or been acquitted by the courts, following a new report that the country’s prisons have become havens of torture and human rights abuses.
The report by the Action of Christians for the Abolition of Torture (ACAT) claims that Burundi’s prisons are holding nearly six times the capacity of inmates for which they were intended, and have been condoning entry by the Imbonerakure militia to carry out torture. Muravya for instance, has a capacity to hold 100 prisoners only but current number of inmates totals to 657. Mpinga on the other hand has a total of 3,584 prisoners, four times the prison’s capacity. Rumonge and Gitega have a total of 1,199 and 1,180 inmates, respectively. Rumonge has a holding capacity of 800 whereas Gitega’s is 400. Out of 6,620 inmates in these four prisons, only 3,802 – or just over half — have been convicted.
ACAT’s findings and demands buttress weekly monitoring reports by SOS Torture/Burundi, a civil society organisation that has been documenting arbitrary arrests and killings. Since the year began, SOS Torture has documented at least 200 cases of arbitrary arrests of opposition supporters in Burundi whose whereabouts are not always known.
ACAT Burundi is a civil society organization that has repeatedly called on the population to hold peaceful demonstrations to demand respect for the constitution and the historic agreement of Arusha for peace and reconciliation following the decision by President Pierre Nkurunziza to seek a third term in April 2015.
ACAT, which is also a member of the international federation of ACATS (FIACAT), has continued to monitor serious human rights violations committed in Burundi, with particular emphasis on the prison environment, which has resulted in the striking down of the death penalty.By the end of November 2018, Burundi’s prisons were holding 10,000 inmates – two and half times their capacity of 4,000. President Pierre Nkurunzinza recently ordered the release of inmates charged with minor offences, the third time since the country plunged into a low intensity conflict after he chose to run for a controversial third term in 2015. Typically, inmates have no legal assistance in the face of scarce resources for prisons – such as health supplies and food. Poor hygiene, malnourishment and lack of healthcare are synonymous with prisons. Human rights activists have termed these conditions as life-threatening and called for immediate reforms.
Imbonerakure, the youth political militia affiliated to the ruling party in Burundi, has been allegedly masquerading as members of the prisons’ security committees which enables them to visit and unleash their wrath on inmates. The group has also been accused of attacking and arresting members of the opposition party in their stronghold city of Bujumbura.
Although prison authorities have allowed inmates to register their complaints with the judiciary, investigations have not made much headway. Instead, the government has denied these allegations, further perpetrating these atrocities against its critics. ACAT notes that those who leave prisons are traumatized by their experiences and are in dire need of counseling. However, the government has similarly not invested in rehabilitation centres to help ex-convicts rid themselves of painful memories from their harrowing past.
ACAT consists of 72 Burundian human rights defenders who monitor and document incidents of torture. Since its creation, the group has successfully pressurised the Burundi government to abolish the death penalty. Prison security guards have also been trained on how to handle prisoners. ACAT has insisted that the Burundi government urgently deals with perpetrators of human rights violations in order to restore its image internationally. These perpetrators include prison authorities who have failed to perform their roles in the expected manner.